Sunday, March 30, 2014

odds and ends: March madness

Well, my bracket is trashed. I had UVA and Wichita State in the final game. I'm not even telling you who else I had in the final four. This is the first year in forever that I haven't had at least one of the Final Four teams. And the teams we have some emotional attachment to have been out since Thursday night. Our only comfort this year is that the Tar Heels lasted longer than Duke.

The ice on the pond melted off almost entirely in one single day (today). Yesterday it was still iced over, by the end of the day today, there was only a thin skin of ice over about a third of the pond and the rest of it was gone. Now we just have to wait and see if any of the fish survived the winter. Last year we had a bunch of fish survive, but this was a much harder, colder winter.

I had my last day at the tax place today. It has been remarkably slow the past two weeks. I guess everyone is waiting for the last minute. I think I will do it again next year. It ended up being a fun thing to do, and you feel like you're being really useful. People are so grateful. Of course, we did have the occasional angry encounter, but overall it went pretty smoothly. I will be out of town the next two weekends, so I'm done, but I'm a bit surprised to discover that I'm disappointed to miss the final rush.

In other news, I finished my second Jane Austen class this week. We did Emma this time. It was a great bunch of students, and surprisingly satisfying. Emma is a beautifully constructed novel. Every time I read it I admire it more. The first time I read it--30 years ago--it seemed like a straightforward tale of a mean-girl being schooled by her handsome, perfect, older neighbor. But the more you read it, the more you realize how strong Emma is, how much she stands up to Mr. Knightley, and how much Mr. Knightley has to learn from her. Even though she is a petty, arrogant snob at the beginning. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, my class is done, my volunteering is done, MadMax is on vacation-- sounds like spring break, doesn't it? And indeed it is. Dean is working this weekend, and then we have a few days at home. Then we're headed to the Bozeman area for a few days to see Mel and check out some cool stuff. I have a stack of books to read (I'm deep in another Laurie R. King at the moment and so far it is really good) and I am happy. I know this sounds like I'm about to say I'm taking another blogging break, but I don't think I am. I have three or four half-written posts in my head that I'm trying to get motivated to type out. I didn't realize until I looked just now that it had been two and a half weeks since the last time I posted (before the Lent one). How did that happen?

Enjoy the rest of the weekend, and I hope your bracket fared better than mine. Oh, and if you're looking for something to watch this weekend, I can recommend both of the recent BBC productions of Sense and Sensibility and Emma. Part of what these Austen classes were about was watching various film adaptations of the books to see how they've been reinterpreted in the present. Neither production is perfect, and in fact, I didn't like either of them at first. But they grew on me. Both of them are worth watching. Here are the trailers:

If you're a bit of a Jane Austen nut, as apparently I am, you could spend hours picking and choosing (Marianne and Willoughby from the Emma Thompson version, Elinor and Edward from the BBC version, and etc etc ad infinitum). But that's probably just because I've spent so much time over the past two months watching these things. I ended up watching five versions each of both S&S and Emma. Not kidding. I don't recommend it, even though in hindsight I'm already feeling a bit nostalgic of being in a position where I needed to sit and watch Jane Austen movies by the hour.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lent: this one really is about Lent

You may remember that the church tradition I grew up in didn't celebrate Lent. Lent is an adopted tradition for me. And to be honest, I have pretty mixed feelings about it. In Christian theology, the whole point of Jesus's death on the cross is so that we don't have to suffer for our sins. It's called "substitutionary atonement" if you're interested (and I just googled that and found a fascinating wikipedia article. I had no idea there were so many nuances.)

Technically speaking, Lent--like Advent--is a season of preparation for the celebration of a major church holiday (Lent for Easter, Advent for Christmas). But popularly speaking, most people use Lent as a time to identify with Christ's suffering. They give something up to identify with Jesus's voluntary surrender of his life. We suffer because Christ suffered. The 40 days are symbolic of Jesus's 40 days in the wilderness, mentioned briefly in Mark and described more fully in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the 40 years the Israelites spent preparing to enter the Promised Land.

There's a problem here. If Jesus's death is supposed to substitute for us so we don't have to suffer, trying to take on some of his suffering or identify with his suffering is completely missing the point. And there's no reason at all to use Lent as an opportunity for wallowing in how awful we are, we are mere worms, etc etc. That kind of hair-shirt attitude changes the focus from gratitude for Christ's sacrifice to making it all about me.

So I have lots of mixed feelings about Lent. But I do appreciate the rhythm of the church calendar: the intensity of focus on the spiritual life during Lent or Advent, followed by weeks of "ordinary time." It works much better for me than the year-round intensity of some churches I've attended, which sometimes feels to me like we are trying to whip up a frenzy of religious devotion every week. (not that there's anything wrong with that, it just doesn't suit me as well as the church calendar version, which is why we can all be grateful that there are different denominations for different people.)

Usually for me, Lent is a season of learning. This year I took a continuing ed class on the Jewish origins of Christianity, focusing on St. Paul. It was fascinating. I will tell you more about that another time.

But having said all that: here's something else. This year I gave up sweets for Lent. It has nothing at all to do with identifying with Christ's suffering, and everything to do with me taking advantage of the season to do something I wanted to do anyway. (Who's mis-using Lent now?) I didn't give up sugar, which is in all kinds of things like salad dressing and barbecue sauce and fruit yogurt. Just sweets--cookies, candy, cake, pie, and the like.

The first ten days were easy. So easy I was surprised. I should have done this months ago, I thought. But the past ten days have been a little harder. I built in an escape hatch--I could have a few bites of something if it was a special occasion--and I've taken advantage of that twice. But mostly this has been about me figuring out how it feels to not have sweets in my life. So far, so good.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

there's no place like home. there's no place like home.

It's true, you know. There is no place like home. But we had to keep reminding ourselves of that on Monday. We were sitting in the sun in SoCal Sunday morning, 80 degrees, nice breeze, gorgeous day, then we got on a plane about 4:30 in the afternoon, arrived home on the midnight flight, and woke up Monday morning to about 34 degrees and raining. Ah, Montana. And it rained, or snowed, or sleeted, all dang day long. Normally we are really happy to get home after a trip and see the animals, sleep in our own bed, etc. But it was a tough transition this time. I might not have been entirely cheerful about it.

We did have a great time. Our 30th anniversary is this year, so we wanted to go on some kind of mini-trip to celebrate (the actual date of anniversary is in May, but the weather around here is nice in May--we wanted to go away while it was still cold and gray). So last fall we started looking around for someplace to go, and we decided on the BNP Paribas Open, a pro tennis tournament that is held in Indian Wells, California, near Palm Springs. It was really fun. It's a major tournament, so all the big names were there, but it's a much smaller venue than many of the other majors, so you get to see a lot more of the players.

Our favorite part was watching them practice. They post the practice schedule pretty early in the morning, and you can sit about 12 feet away from your favorites as they warm up for their matches. It was so cool. We were shameless gawkers. We saw Federer, Wawrinka, Nadal, and Li Na in the first 15 minutes after we got there. It was hard to know where to look. Later we watched Djokovic and Andy Murray practice. We also saw several matches, including Nadal's near-loss to Stepanek in the second round (and since Nadal had a bye in the first round, it was his first match of the tournament). Then last night he did lose to Dogolopov (I'm not entirely sure I spelled that right), but we had to watch that on TV since now we are back at home. It's also really fun to watch doubles--we saw several of those, too.

Why am I telling you this? I have no idea. The best part was just sitting outside, soaking up sun and gentle air. We both really wished we could stay a few more days.

Let's see what else is new around here. Oh-- I keep forgetting to tell you that I got braces. It brings back lots of memories of high school, but unfortunately, I don't look like a cute teenager anymore. More's the pity. I'm told you can barely see them. I don't know if that's really true or if my friends are just telling me that. They don't hurt as badly as I remember them hurting. Fortunately, they're only on top and I only have to wear them until Thanksgiving.

My second Jane Austen class, this one on Emma, started last night. I wasn't sure we would have enough to talk about since I only had them read the first three chapters for the first night, but we ended up running out of time to do all the things I wanted to do. If you haven't seen the new BBC version of Emma (with Romola Garai as Emma), it's pretty good. Worth checking out.

That's everything I can think of right now. We had thick-as-peanut-butter fog this morning, but once it cleared off, it really did look like spring. Now we just have to watch out for flooding while all this snow melts.

Remember I promised you a picture of green? Here you go. Not the world's greatest picture, and I guess it's more blue than green, but I took it right as we were getting in the car to drive to the airport and head home.

And here is that same view off our deck on Monday when we got back. At least the snow is starting to melt.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Food on Friday: The Cooking Grinch Strikes Again

For awhile now, we've bought a quarter cow from a local rancher, i.e., one-fourth of one of his cattle. I'm not up on cow terminology--is it a steer? a cow? I have no idea. But we get a quarter of it. Not exactly a quarter--it's not like we choose the left back quadrant or something, but he sends the ... um... whatever-you-call-it off to a small, local processing center, and they divvy it up fairly equitably so that we get some steaks, some ground beef, and some roasts. Then I go pick it up. Sometime I will tell you more about going to the processing place to pick up our meat, but that's way off topic for today, which eventually will be a recipe for sugar cookies. Ha.

So anyway. Last year we didn't get one because PellMel the vegetarian was here and we already had a backlog. We always go through the steaks (yum!) and the ground beef, but roasts? I am just not a roast person. We probably have two years of roasts stashed down in our freezer. So this winter I decided I was going to do better. Once a month I've been hauling out a roast and figuring out something to do with it.

So this morning, there I am chopping a chuck roast into large chunks for beef stew and wondering about things they say in cookbooks. After dredging the meat in seasoned flour, you're supposed to brown the meat "on all sides." I'm assuming that means more than just top and bottom, because if that's all it meant, wouldn't they say to brown the meat on both sides?

So there I am trying to prop these pieces of meat up on their sides. The last time I did this I actually stood there and held them up on their sides with a pair of tongs while they browned. Hell with that, I thought this time, and just did top, bottom, and then sort of lined them up in a row so they held each other up on two of the sides, then decided I was done with it. They're now browned on two-thirds of their sides and they're tucked into the crock pot with sliced onions, red wine, and various seasonings. I'm out of carrots, but I can't imagine it will make a material difference in the outcome if I throw some carrots in there later this afternoon after I've been to the grocery store. If it will, don't tell me.

I know from experience that Dean and MadMax will love this, and I will eat a half serving and remember why I am not a big fan of roasts. I could never be a vegetarian (steak! bacon! cheeseburgers!) but I could go the rest of my life without having pot roast or beef stew and I would never notice.

Here is another silly thing I read in a cookbook. I actually got the cookbook out so I could type it word for word (this is from Desperation Dinners, which in spite of its un-appealing title is one of my all-time most used cookbooks): "When you have no idea what to cook, fry an onion. I do this a lot, and without fail, family members sniff their way into the kitchen clamoring to know what's for dinner."

Whaaaaat? How in the world does that make sense? You've now got a fried onion, no dinner, and people in the kitchen demanding to know what you're going to feed them. That is, hands down, the dumbest line I've ever read in a cookbook--even though I love that cookbook.

But the real reason I broke down to type another Food on Friday post (which I'm scheduling for while we're out of town) is because after years of searching, I finally found a sugar cookie recipe that works. MadMax adores sugar cookies--they are almost the only cookie he will eat (although he has on occasion shown an unreasonable fondness for Chips Ahoy Chunky White Fudge). I've tried probably eight different sugar cookie recipes in the last few years and never found one that was worth the trouble, since the sugar cookie mix that comes in the red pouch from Betty Crocker is actually pretty good.

But he was jonesing for sugar cookies last night and I didn't have the mix, so I pulled out one of my oldest cookbooks, one I bought not long after we got married, found a recipe for sugar cookies in the index, and voila (which in our house is almost always pronounced voy-la), the best homemade sugar cookies I've ever produced. These are the big, soft kind, not the thin crisp ones. So here you go, the recipe as written and then the way I modified it.

(attributed to Nancy Cheek in the 1982 edition of Chapel Hill Favorites)
3 C sifted flour
1/2 t nutmeg
1 t soda
1 C margarine
1 C sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla

Cream margarine and sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla, add dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly. Chill at least two hours. Roll dough out, cut with cookie cutters, and bake on ungreased cookie sheets for 10-12 minutes at 325.

Which is both a bit appalling (does anybody use margarine anymore?), not to my taste (I've never been a fan of nutmeg, which I know makes me an unsophisticated slob, but there it is), and too much work. So here's what I did last night, which turned out pretty damn fabulously if I do say so myself.

2 1/2 C all-purpose flour
1/2 C whole-grain spelt flour (or barley flour, or just use 3 cups regular flour)
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 C butter (1 stick), softened slightly
1/4 C shortening
1/4 C unsweetened applesauce (you could probably use 1/2 C applesauce and skip the shortening, but I haven't tried that)
scant cup of sugar (probably about 7/8 of a cup)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt

Cream butter, shortening, applesauce, and sugar for 3-4 minutes. Add the egg, salt, and vanilla, and mix thoroughly. Add the dry ingredients half a cup at  time. Drop the cookies onto ungreased cookie sheets, using about a quarter-cup per cookie. Flatten them into thick disks three-ish inches in diameter. Bake for 14 minutes at 325 or until just barely starting to brown. Do not overbake.

What's the dumbest line you've ever read in a cookbook?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Lent: give me strength for round 5

Lent is upon us. Some of you are probably still recovering from Mardi Gras, which I completely forgot to celebrate this year. We did make it to our church's Ash Wednesday service tonight. Every year during Lent I think more than usual about religious themes, which I know is not of interest to some of you, so I'll put "Lent" in the title when that's the case. The posts won't be specifically about Lent. Or at least I don't think they will be, I've only got two planned at the moment. And just 40 days to go.

Awhile ago I decided--as I periodically do--that I should make yet another effort to come to terms with the evangelicalism of my youth, this time by reading books by evangelicals. So I looked through the Christian bestseller lists and the awards lists and picked out eight or ten books that looked promising. Most of them I pitched right back into the Salvo box after a few chapters, but I made it all the way through a few of them.

I left Evangelicalism behind thirty years ago, so I am not new to the effort to define my beliefs by comparing them to my past. I've had decades now of figuring out what I believe and how it differs from the way I was raised.

For the most part, I am pretty unconflicted about this. I have no desire at all to be an Evangelical again. There are so many things that bother me about Evangelicals these days it's hard to know where to start: the intertwining of faith and politics; the lack of questioning of consumerism and materialist values; the willingness to reduce the New Testament message of love, joy, peace and mercy to a couple of harangues on maintaining 1950s middle class morality. As a friend of mine said a couple of weeks ago, we've come to the point where people see the church as "exterminators of sin" instead of "dispensers of grace," and I think Evangelicalism is the primary culprit in that.

But that's not to say that all Evangelicals are like that. There are still things I can learn from them, and learn I did from a few of these authors. But over the past couple of days I've realized that my reading had an unintended and unwelcome side effect: it re-awakened a voice in my head I thought I was done with. It's the voice that just-below-the-level-of-consciousness tells me over and over again that I can't trust myself, I can't trust my experience, my ideas aren't worth anything, and it's a little ridiculous to think that my opinions are valid compared with the weight of all those other opinions out there, isn't it?

It's a voice I learned at least in part from being raised Evangelical. It's clear to me that not all Evangelicals have this voice, but I am naturally a person who asks questions, and the answers to my questions were often that's not how it is or accept our beautiful system of belief and stop asking questions. Or simply: you're wrong. I learned very early to keep my questions to myself and not rock the boat.

I hate rocking the boat anyway. That's why I post my opinions here in this little blog that only about 30 people read, and I make very little effort to increase my readership. Because even though I love to ask questions and to consider what I think and believe, I also hate to cause problems. I like peace. I like it when people get along. I enjoy listening to a lively discussion, but if it turns into an argument, I head for the door. I hate conflict. I am a wuss.

So anyway, for a minute--ok, maybe for the past month or so--that reawakened voice in my head caused me to forget that I do trust myself. I do value my own experience and my own opinions. (ha, and suddenly I'm remembering the post from last week that was also about learning to trust myself. This seems to be a theme.) My opinions may not be orthodox, and I may not be able to write down a logical defense that will convince anybody else, but that's OK. That's not the point.

When I finally realized what was going on, it was like a load of bricks falling off my back. Oh, yeah, I remember now. I'm OK. I can let go of that bit of legacy thinking that insidiously tries to tell me that I have to rely on an authority to tell me what to do and think. And THANK GOD for that. Literally.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Chickens (not) in the snow

Chickens are pretty tough. Ours don't like snow, but they don't seem to be a bit bothered by the cold. Of course, we close them in their coop when the temps plunge down into single digits or below zero--it's usually around 45 degrees in there. But the other day when the sun came out and it "warmed up" to the mid-twenties, they came right out and were cruising around the yard.

We've heard stories that chickens that are bored start attacking each other. So on the days when they are, um, cooped up all day, I try to take them something interesting to eat for entertainment. Interesting is in the eye of the chicken, though-- they love any kind of bread or certain leftovers.

It is dang difficult to get all five of them in one shot-- but see the fifth one over in the mini-door?
Here they are earlier this week when it was about 2 degrees above zero--the red light is their heat lamp
We haven't been getting as many eggs, though, usually one or two per day. They're almost two years old now, so they are due to start slowing down on the laying anyway. It will be interesting to see this spring if their production increases. Dean is pushing to get 2-3 new pullets when they have them at our local livestock store in a few weeks. He wants blue eggs (these all lay brown eggs).

We've also had visitors to the feeder that is inside the chicken yard fence, but not inside the coop. The only sign is footprints in the snow. One set we're pretty sure are pheasant. I tried to get a shot with chicken prints and pheasant prints in the same picture so you could see the size comparison, but it's been so cold this week the chickens have barely poked their heads out of the coop.

Sadie's foot print for size comparison--these are way too small to be chicken prints, probably pheasant?
Then a few days ago there was something new. I have no idea what this is--maybe a mouse or vole, dragging its tail behind it? Whatever. We are happy to feed the local wildlife. (this is a terrible picture, I hope you can see the little footprints--click to enlarge. that's my footprint off to the left for size comparison.)

Anybody know what would make this kind of print?
And here is the picture from our deck about an hour ago--the same shot that I've posted several times in spring and summer with the pond and the mountains in the background. The white dots, of course, are falling snow. It doesn't look like much in this picture unless you know that poor Dean had shoveled off the deck about an hour before I took this picture. Ahhh, winter--you can go away now.

So, you can see why we are sincerely hoping that March has come in like a lion so it can go out like a lamb. We've had about enough. When we get back from our weekend away, I will post a picture a green-filled picture for contrast. I hope. :-)

Sunday, March 02, 2014

black hole of need, part 2

I deleted the end of the previous post because no matter how hard I tried, it came off sounding like either let them eat cake or I am so awesome that I help people less fortunate than myself. There is no good way to talk about what I was trying to say. I guess it boils down to this: there is unlimited need, but each one of us has limited resources. You have to figure out how to manage this gap, this huge, ocean-sized gap, between the amount that you can realistically do, and the need that is out there. And if you're going to help, you have to be sure that help is wanted, first of all, and that you can give it without condescending. And without doing it just to pad your resumé, so to speak--so you have credentials in the "I help people" conversation.

It occurred to me later, as I thought of all of you--at least those of you that I know read here--that maybe most of you already know this, because it seems pretty damn obvious once you state it like that. You don't do anyone any good if you burn out, or if you're forcing yourself to continue to help when you're feeling bitter and resentful. Also there is a way in which charity can make make people more victimized than they were when you started, i.e., you reinforce the gulf between helper and help-ee by the way you help. Sometimes people need to help themselves.

We've started a conversation in our church recently about how we can be more involved in helping those in our community who need help. And while at first I was entirely enthusiastic about this, the more I hear about it, the more I've thought to myself that sounds exhausting. I'm already doing more than I really want to do--not just at church but in other venues as well--and how am I going to add a bunch more on top of that?

And I guess the answer is the same as it's always been. You just have to figure out what you can do. I do think that "good works" motivated by guilt, ought to, and should are the proverbial clanging gong from 1 Corinthians 13. If you aren't acting out of love, joy at the opportunity to help, gratitude that you are able to help, are you doing more harm than good?

And yet sometimes you do just have to suck it up and help someone because they need help, even when you don't want to, even when your motivation sucks, even when you are all out.

I really need a vacation, and thank the lord one is coming up-- Dean and I are headed south for a four-day weekend next week. I can't remember the last time I needed to get away as badly as I do right now. But my handy-dandy ever-ready guilty conscience helpfully tells me that people who are poor, or mentally ill, or victimized, or whatever, don't get to take a break. They don't get weekends away to recharge so they can come back prepared to fight the good fight again another day. But I do.

Ack. I'm just getting myself tied up in knots. I've been taking pictures of the chickens tiptoeing around in the snow that I will post before I go so this mangled mess of a post won't be on top. :-) Hope the weather is better where you are-- we've had either a blizzard or a winter storm going for the past five days running now.