Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ice and Jigsaw puzzles

No icepocalypse this morning, lucky for us. The car door was rather stuck, and I had to deice the windows, but the streets were bare and wet, as they say in road reports. The northern part of the state was not so lucky, however, and many thousands of people are without power. On my drive in to work this morning, I saw convoys of electric company trucks heading north to help.

Here at work in the past month, we have been working on jigsaw puzzles. I think the idea was to give patrons something to work on, but in practice it has been staff, taking a break from real work. Yes, I am one of those staff members. I love jigsaw puzzles, for a variety of reasons. First of all, they remind me of childhood vacations. Between Christmas and New Year's, we would set up a large folding table in the family room, spread out a 1000+ piece puzzle, and get to work. There was a very set order of work to be followed - first, all the pieces must be turned right-side up, any pieces that were already/still stuck together taken apart (mustn't have any cheating!) and the edges separated. Next, all the edges pieces must be put together before any of the picture can be started. Then, the real work could begin, and we each would choose a section or figure within the puzzle to work on. The puzzles we did were usually these strange French cartoons, semi-pornographic, if cartoons of little figures with bulbous noses and funny bodies can be pornographic. Although I had some puzzles that were of more "appropriate" subjects - horses, tigers, and so on, I tended to find them boring, not requiring enough effort to be worth the trouble. I mean, it was just a photograph, with a single subject, and the pieces were too big.

In the puzzles we worked, it was great fun to discover where the figure you were working on fit in the larger picture. And that is the second reason I love jigsaw puzzles - getting involved in solving a problem. I love crossword puzzles for the same reason. You have to work at the puzzle, solve it, and get to the end with something complete. For someone with an often over-active mind, it is a great relief to be able to sit and concentrate on a puzzle - it forces the many thoughts and worries that threaten to overwhelm me to the side, give me a break. It is relaxing. In fact, I started working on crossword puzzles every night before bedtime (from a book of the Friday and Saturday New York Times - anything else is too easy and doesn't engage my mind enough ) and since I have been doing so, I find it much easier to fall asleep.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ice here, ice there

We are on the verge of perhaps another icepocalypse. Because of the threat, state offices opened 2 hours late, and many schools in Little Rock and around the state were closed. I just started carpooling, today in fact, and my carpooling buddy and I made it in 35 minutes, about 20 minutes less than normal. No ice. But it is cold, and wet and there is a good chance that we will be covered in ice by tomorrow morning. If so, and we get to stay home, I plan to play with my new sewing machine. Over Christmas, I bought a pattern and fabric, but I haven't had a chance to do anything with it yet.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sunrise in Sedona

I went to visit my grandparents over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Every time I go to Sedona I think "I would like to live here." The views are just spectacular, with great vistas, sunrises and sunsets, and the air is clean and clear. Even in the summer, when it get up to 100 during the day, I could still stand to live there. Too bad there aren't many jobs for academics up that way - but if something comes open at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, I am sure I will be pushing Benjamin to apply.
This trip Aunt Mary, Uncle Richard and I went on a hike up behind Cathedral and Big Bell Rocks, towards the rock walls. Unfortunately, my camera chose that time to start acting up, so I didn't get as many pictures as I would have liked. After 7 years, it is probably about time to get a new digital camera. If I am lucky, I will be getting one for my birthday in a few months. Hopefully it will hold up until then.
Here is the sunrise from the hotel parking lot. When the sun shines on the rocks at that slanted angle, they just glow. Every morning is a new revelation.
My grandparents, who have had dogs in the (distant) past, now have this little girl, Chi Chi. She is their baby, and is heavily doted upon. This is her morning walk sweater - it gets pretty cold in Sedona, up around 4500 feet above sea level, and she is a little dog. As a rule, I don't like little dogs, because they are yappy and tend towards stupid, but Chi Chi was a quiet, well-behaved, intelligent dog, and I will break the rule for her.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mt. Nebo hike

On Sunday we went hiking at Mt. Nebo State Park, outside of Russellville, about an hour from Conway. To get to the top of the mountain, where all the hiking is, you have to drive up a series of increasingly steep switchbacks that make you glad you are not towing a trailer! (Reminded me of the Lucille Ball movie - The Long, Long Trailer, where they drive up the Rockies or something and Lucy is inside trying to cook dinner, while everything slides and flies about around her). We saw more wildlife just driving up to the park than we have on any other hike: several flocks of wild turkeys, deer, and a roadrunner! I didn't get any pictures, because we were on a steep road, but hey, we still saw them.
It was a cold morning - that white stuff is ice that has dripped from the side of a rock onto a branch - colder on the top than it was in Conway. But it was sunny and clear, and we had great views.
This one is from the visitor center, looking out towards Lake Dardanelle, part of the Arkansas River. We took the Rim hike that gave us a 360 degree view (as we hiked, I mean, not all at once). One end of the moutain is Sunrise Point, and the other is Sunset Point. Handgliders are rumored to use the former as a launching point. Benjamin and I were sort of mystified by this, because although it was a great place to launch, there didn't appear to be many places to land in the immediate valley.

As with the other hiking destinations we have visited so far, Mt. Nebo had a lot of interesting rock formations along the trail. This is looking up the side of the bluff from the trail. In other places, the rocks were rounder and softer looking.

This picture is for my mom - she loves stone cottages. Mt. Nebo was a resort destination back in the 1890s, and you can still rent cottages up there. I am formulating a plan whereby we and some of our friends rent one for a few days during the summer - get out of the heat and spend some time just absorbing the scenery. Sounds great to me.
Here is one of the larger rocks we passed along the trail. Pretty big huh? The mountain is a relic of the time two tectonic plates crashed together (eons ago), and it has been weathering ever since. Wouldn't want that to fall on me!

I am off to Sedona for the next 4 days. Hopefully, I will return with many pictures of the red rocks.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Making Pasta

As regular readers know, I am highly in favor of making my own food - bread, yogurt, applesauce, all of which I made this weekend, and more. The purpose (to me, at least) of making your own food is to have a final product that you trust, and that tastes better than what you could buy. With pasta, I am coming to the conclusion that for the normal cook (i.e. me), that simply isn't what happens. Benjamin and I made whole wheat fettuccine this weekend, the first time in a long while, and it was just as much trouble as it has always been. Flour gets all over the kitchen, bits of pasta cover the counters and floor, and the pasta sticks together or doesn't get cut properly, or some other, new mini-disaster. The end result isn't that much better than what I get dried at the grocery store, and is certainly not as good as pasta I could buy at an artisanal pasta store. And it takes so much more effort that a simple, quick pasta dish takes hours and makes an enormous mess. This is not to say that I will give up on making pasta forever, but it will probably remain a rare event. Best to stick to bread, I think.

Oliver's new toy

Oliver contemplates his kingdom

Oliver was a very lucky kitty this Christmas - he got a cat tree. Well, it is supposed to be for all three cats, but Creamsicle ignores it completely, even when it is liberally covered in catnip, and Cleo only gets on the lower platform occasionally. Oliver loves it. He sleeps on the top level all the time, and has recently discovered the tube on the bottom level. And it gives him easy access to the top of the bookcase, where he perches like a little furry gargoyle (the plant on the left of the bookcase is no longer there - it was just there for a few days). Who knew this kitty who used to be afraid of heights would enjoy playing gargoyle!

Oliver pretends to be a bag of flour.
On Saturday, as I was baking bread, I turned around to put the flour back in the cupboard and discovered Oliver. He is getting bold, now that he is no longer afraid of heights! Where will he turn up next?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What did you cook this weekend?

This turned out to be a rather domestic weekend for me, or at least, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. On Saturday I baked my weekly loaf of bread, made a batch of applesauce out of some old apples that were rolling around the fridge, and made hot dog buns to go with our dinner bratwurst. Today I made yogurt, bean and pasta salad for our lunches this week, and homemade pasta for dinner. Whew! Thank you Benjamin for doing the dishes tonight!

We have some good looking meals coming up this week - Swiss chard and carmelized onion soft tacos (with homemade corn tortillas and Swiss chard from our CSA), potato and vegetable quesadillas (with not homemade flour tortillas), potato and artichoke soup, and homemade macaroni and cheese (neither the cheese nor the macaroni are homemade). I am really looking forward to dinner!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I've been memed!

I've been memed for the first time ever by a square peg. I had no idea what that meant, so I had to do a little googling, and it turns out that a blog meme is sort of like a chain letter, only more fun, and less threatening (no bad luck if you fail to come through...) Here are the rules for the meme I have been tagged with:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Write six random things about yourself.
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

So, six random things:
  • I can't stop myself from recommending books to people. It is a compulsion, an addiction. This morning, for example, I was getting my teeth cleaned and I ended up recommending a series to the hygenist. At the public library on Sunday, I recommended a book to a random patron who was asking the actual (i.e. employed at that library) librarian for help.
  • Before becoming a librarian, I worked as a receptionist at a wedding cake company, a finish sander at a construction company, a data entry clerk at a power company, and a transfer evaluator at UT Austin.
  • My favorite place on earth is the Olympic Pennisula coast of Washington. Closely followed by St. Andrews, Scotland, and anywhere without lots of people.
  • I don't eat shellfish. Not since we dissected them in 9th grade biology...
  • My husband and I have a vermicomposter (worm bin).
  • In 3rd grade, Annie and I wrote our own version of Horse Illustrated magazine, and included the following piece of advice (question and answer made up by us): Q: I really want a horse, but my parents say it is too much responsibility. How do I prove I am able to take care of a horse? A: Start small, ask for a hamster, and prove that you can take care of a pet. Then, once you have proved that, ask for a horse again.
So, there you have it. I am going to tag Bonny Anne, weaver, Neil, The Ethical Werewolf, Jennifer at Wuthering Iris, Nadia, and Tactless Wonder. The latter three were found using various favorites listed in my profile.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I am Elizabeth Bennett

Goody! She's my favorite Austen heroine.

I am Elizabeth Bennet!

Take the Quiz here!

Who are you?

No-knead Bread, No Thanks, Not for Me

I have been thinking about bread a lot lately. Last week I baked a loaf of no-knead wheat bread. Have you heard of this fad sweeping through the kitchens of America? Mark Bittman introduced many people to it through the Minimalist column in the NYT, then food pages at local papers picked it up and spread the word. I resisted, since I had time to knead bread, and liked the results I was getting. I also resisted on account of my natural aversion to popular trends - if everyone is raving about something, no matter what it is, I decide that I probably won't like it, and therefore abstain. At least until it is no longer quite so poplular. (I refused to read the Harry Potter books when I first heard about them, but when I did get around to it, it was because I was in Scotland, and I read the first two in a day. I have yet to try the Twilight series, and now that it is a movie, I probably never will.)

Anyway, I tried this loaf of bread last week, and well, meh. It was a decent loaf of bread, but it wasn't anything special. My theory is that the people who were raving about it were people who hadn't eaten a decent handmade loaf of bread in a long time, and were therefore astounded at the taste. Compared to the dry, fluffy, chemical-laced product sold in grocery stores as "bread," no-knead bread is spectacular. Compared, however, to bread that you have spent your time waiting for, working on, feeling beneath your palms as you knead it and shape it, no-knead bread is missing something. Something vital. The sense of accomplishment, for one thing. If you don't have to work at it, then the bread doesn't have that. It is a similar situation to tomatoes or carrots. If you buy carrots at the store in a bag, and that is all you ever know, or the pasty tomatoes in the produce section, then you probably think people who say they love these vegetables (yes, tomatoes are fruit, but for the sake of brevity they are vegetables) are nuts. If you then eat a tomato or carrot from a farmer's market, you begin to get an idea of what they are going on about. These vegetables have a flavor, a scent, something that elevates them from the store-bought (yeah, they weren't grown thousands of miles away and harvested weeks ago...). And that is good. More people should know that joy.

But those farmer's market vegetables, good as they are, cannot compare to the carrot or tomato or even zucchini that you grow in your own garden. That you water with your own hands, weed, stake, tend, wait impatiently for throughout the season, then harvest and eat within 1 minute. Then, then you know what a true Platonic ideal of a vegetable tastes like, what carrotness really is. Many children who do not like vegetables in general will eat vegetables they have raised, because they had a hand in it, they have pride of ownership. I can still remember the excitement and joy I felt when I would help my father harvest carrots, peapods, and tomatoes from his garden, and again when I would get to eat them.

It is the same with bread. If no-knead bread gets more people baking and realizing the joy of homemade bread, and gets them to reject the so-called bread at the store, then I am all for it. I love my farmer's markets, and I love buying from other people who have spent their time looking out for the vegetables or chickens or what-have-you that I am buying, because let's face it, I can't grow much of anything in an apartment (yes, I have done some container gardening, but it isn't very productive). And I love going to bakeries where the bread is made with the same type of care. But if I am going to bake bread for myself, as long as I have the time and the will to spend in the baking of bread, I prefer to knead my own. To spend effort and love in making something that will feed me, my husband, and my friends.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Favorite 2008 Books, Part 2

I read quite a few interesting non-fiction books in 2008, but not all of them are worthy of inclusion on a best of the year list. Here are 8 that made my (totally subjective) list:
  • Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks - A look at the brain and music, how they interact, what happens when the brain has some sort of short circuit or injury, and so forth. With interesting case studies and personal observations. As an avid music listener and amateur musician, I found this fascinating.
  • China Road by Rob Gifford - Gifford was NPR's China reporter for many years, and before he left for a new position in London, he took a trip through China on their really big freeway. I appreciate books that make me look at other countries from a new perspective, and uncover stories that don't make the NYT. Gifford has a good narrative voice and a good sense of humor.
  • The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner - another NPR reporter, this time writing about the impact that geography has on national and personal happiness. Again, I like this because it gave me a look into other cultures. And the conclusions Weiner makes about happiness are interesting as well.
  • The Devil We Know by Robert Baer - A look at Iran, and its military/power ambitions, as well as how American leaders should deal with Iran. Baer was a CIA operative in the Middle East for many years, and had what seemed to me a good perspective on a troubling area of the world. It made me really want to visit Iran too, but that is another story. One of the books I hope President-elect Obama at least skims.
  • Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell - Vowell is a frequent commentator on NPR, and writes with a dry, cynical wit that I enjoy. This time, she writes about all of the American presidents (except Kennedy) who have been assassinated, and the background to the assassins and the assassinations.
  • Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely - I am glad to know I am not the only one making irrational decisions about purchases and behaving irrationally in other situations. Ariely has some interesting research and conclusions about our irrational economic actions - as opposed to the rational models usually used by economists.
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson - Bryson takes on Australia. Do I really need to say more? Another of those books I like for the view it gives me of another place and people. And because it is by Bill Bryson, there are plenty of moments of humor and self-deprication.
  • Flat, Hot and Crowded by Thomas Friedman - another of the books I really hope Obama reads, or at least skims. The US and the world cannot continue on the same path it has been on, and Friedman gives some good examples of why not, and what we can do to change. It is going to take a complete 180 throughout the culture. I hope we can do it.
Those are my top picks of the year. Sorry I didn't provide links to these, but you can easily look them up for yourself. I am sure there are plenty of other books I could recommend, if you need something to read. And now, on to reading for 2009!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Favorite Books of 2008, Part 1

Since this is the time of year when the news media in all its various forms publishes top 10 lists of everything from best music to worst new TV shows to best pajama designs (OK, I made that last one up), I thought I would jump in with my own list. The one thing I can speak definitively about is books, so I am going to give you two lists: my top fiction finds, and my top non-fiction finds. Neither one adds up to 10, exactly, but I am sure you can get over that. They are listed in no particular order - I hate actually ranking things that way. Too messy. To start, here is my list of fiction:

  • The Pellinor Series by Alison Croggon- The Naming, The Riddle, The Crow, and The Singing. I discovered the first book in the series at the Brockport library and devoured it and the two following. Then, I had to wait for the final book to be published (I had to order it from England, because it isn' coming out in the US until March), and while I was waiting, I cajoled Benjamin into letting me read the series to him. We gave the first two books to Benjamin's teenage step-sisters for Christmas. It is a fanstasy series in the same sort of vein as The Lord of the Rings, but with a female heroine, and no hobbits or dwarves.
  • The Magic, Inc. Series by Shanna Swendson- Magic, Inc., Once Upon Stilettos, Damsel Under Stress, and Don't Hex With Texas. Another fantasy series with a great female heroine. This one, however, is sort of a cross between Harry Potter and Sex in the City. It is strictly chick lit, bordering on romance novel territory, but it sure is fun. I gave the first book in the series to Annie for her birthday.
  • Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips - What would the Greek gods and goddesses do with themselves if they were still around and living in London? What could possibly go wrong if two mortals got mixed up with them?
  • Palace of Illusions by Chitra Divakaruni - a retelling of parts of ancient Indian legends, from a woman's perspective.
  • The Weaver and the Factory Maid and the other books in the Haunted Ballads Series by Deborah Grabien - A Scottish folk musician and his theatre actress/director girlfriend have to solve centuries old mysteries to stop dangerous hauntings. Sounds a little hokey, and I know they aren't to everyone's taste, but they are quite well written.
  • An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear - this is the most recent of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Set during and after WW I, featuring a perceptive, courageous, and damaged heroine/detective. All the books in this series are amazingly good.
  • Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye - a YA novel, quite clever with its satire of society and with its little adventure. A shy watchmaker mouse falls in love and sets out to rescue the she-mouse he adores. There are others in the series, but I have yet to get a hold of them at my library.
  • Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah - Another YA novel, about a Australian-Muslim teenager and her decision to start wearing the hijab. The book focuses on what it means to her, why she chooses it, and how it does and doesn't change her life.