Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Dark Underbelly of Home Ownership

This Halloween my house has decided to play some seriously nasty tricks on me.  I should have grown suspicious earlier in the week, when the trash compactor belligerently  jammed, refusing (apparently for all eternity) to open.  Yuck!  smelly trash.  I thought that was pretty gruesome and not at all anything I wanted to deal with, but alas, odor is inspiring.  I set about solving that issue, but before I could make any headway, my drains decided to get cranky too.  The kitchen sink wouldn't drain, even when I ran the disposal -- this never bodes well.  But, we were getting ready to go out trick or treating and I decided to just let things sit for a bit.  Moments after I left the kitchen though, there was an eruption and then some whirlpool action and lots of noise (so reports youngest child -- the sole surviving witness to the carnage).  Within seconds, water came pouring out from under the sink and we were all rushing for towels.  I'm guessing a poltergeist....

"But why should the kitchen have all the fun?" --said my downstairs toilet, apparently jealous of all the attention being heaped on his brother pipes.  So, the toilet joined in.  I'm sure it would've been much happier overflowing (far more dramatic you know), but since the seal at the base is apparently shot, the water just all came seeping out from under it.  Lovely.  The shower, not to outdone, choked up some nasty black stuff and the possibility of a plumber on Halloween = nil.

So, we wait and improvise bathroom accommodations for the evening.  Luckily, that vast earthquake experience I spoke of in an earlier post (here), has come in rather handy.  Our temporary commode is set up and will handle most smaller needs.  Every door and window in the house is open, as the stench is not particularly pleasant.  Since it's 35 degrees outside and dropping, it's a little chilly in here too.  Still, even frostbitten, I'm going to be sorry to shut the house up for the night in an hour or so.

Here's hoping tomorrow brings relief.  I'm trusting my friendly neighborhood plumber, Barry, to swoop down (much like Superman) and save the day.  I know -- I'm deluding myself, but hope springs eternal!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Goofy Girls....

As you can see from the video below, my youngest daughter Gracie is quite the comedienne and my older daughter Charlotte has an outstanding soprano voice.  This video came about because Gracie and I were trying to record part of Charlotte's voice lesson -- by stealth.  Here, Charlotte's learning a new Christmas piece (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear") she'll be auditioning with soon.  At first, I just held the camera down, hoping it would pick up the vocals in the background, but then Gracie got in on the act and hilarity ensued.  She just couldn't resist and I think you'll agree her giggles and general goofiness ARE rather irresistible!

Though the video was taken by "hidden camera," she thought it was so hysterical she happily agreed to let me blog about it here.  Careful observers will note the Adams family "Thing" allusions about midway through the video.  Hope you enjoy.  

P.S.  Both girls would love to hear any compliments you may have in the comments -- modest as they are....

First Snow

I wasn't expecting this.  We rarely get snow before Thanksgiving, so an inch and a half before Halloween is a big deal around here.  It's beautiful this morning and so still.  Not even a wisp of breeze stirring these trees.  I do fear for my silver-leafed beauty -- you can see it leaning dramatically between the log house across the street and my redwood.  It just doesn't handle snow well when it's still in leaf.  It bent dangerously  two years ago during an early June snow and I'd just gotten used to the idea of it leaning like the tower in Pisa.  Now, I'm worried it may fall.  Still, it's a beautiful morning and the snow is a welcome surprise!  Wish I could stay inside, all cozy and knit something while looking at this beautiful view.... but it's off to Colburn for my budding musicians.  Hope it's still here when we get back!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Super Cheap, Super Simple, Super Good Beef Stew

Last month I was teaching the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and if I could come up with something as good as:

Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr; describe the feeling I get in October when the temperatures begin to drop, the leaves begin to change and every breeze feels cool and crisp, I'd do it for you, but I'm no poet and don't I know it (cheesy, I know -- sorry). Anyway take the lines above and reverse them so that instead of spring, you're thinking Autumn and you'll know why I'm cooking beef stew tonight.

I'm a fan of easy, cheap -- but, nevertheless, DELICIOUS home cooked meals.  I've already blogged about my Chicken Soup, so it's time for another mainstay here in my little mountain dome.  Like the soup though, this is almost so obvious and so easy, I feel a little silly detailing the recipe.  Still, there must be others like me out there who were never really taught how to do any of this, so for them -- I'll describe the process.  Besides, I really love this recipe and my family devours it -- it's good to know.

I buy my stew meat in bulk from Costco and freeze it, so I almost always have the makings of this dish on hand.  I only use it a pound of the stew beef too (it's mostly for flavor), so it's really not a pricey meal at all.  So here goes:  throw the stew beef in a crock pot (no need to even brown it first), chop up a few onions, 6-8 carrots, a head of celery and as many potatoes as you can stuff in your crock pot.  Add some tomato soup (I use Trader Joe's tomato soup in a box) and a can of creamed corn (I know, I generally think that stuff is gross, but trust me it works in here).  Season to taste with basil, oregano, salt, pepper and You. Are. Done.

Let it cook all day and at dinner time check the seasonings and eat it.  Sometimes, I serve it over rice or noodles -- it goes farther that way.  It's even better as leftovers the next day, so when I say fill that crock pot... I mean it.  I love that this takes hardly any effort and pleases everyone in my house.  There aren't many meals that do that.  So, for convenience (and shopping lists), here's the recipe:

1 lb. stew beef
8 carrots
Head of Celery
2 Onions
Heap of Potatoes
1-2 cans Tomato Soup
1 can Creamed Corn
Oregano/Basil/Salt/Pepper (to taste)

Chop up veggies, throw everything in a crock pot for 8-10 hours on low and serve over rice or noodles (optional).


Halloween Preparations

Considering that my doctoral dissertation was on Renaissance witchcraft literature and I currently teach Harry Potter classes to homeschoolers, you'd think Halloween would be a much anticipated event each year.  But, really....not.

I have never been able to get terribly excited about Halloween decorations.  Maybe it's because I don't remember any growing up, so it's not very firmly embedded in my psyche -- or maybe I just can't get behind the pressure to start the "holiday" season October 1st.  Being a teacher, prepping for September has always been a pretty dominant part of my year and it's hard to get excited about another big project just one month into the fall semester.  Whatever the reason, I have very few Halloween decorations... all are things my husband has bought and most of them don't even see the light of day each year.  I do have a black cat -- does that count?

As we drive around town these days, my children eagerly point out houses draped in cobwebs with gravestones on the front lawn and some of them are cute and all, but remarkably I feel no "Jones following" peer pressure to do the same and I think the root cause is that I have just never really been enthused about this holiday.  Witches, wizards, magic... these are things I've spent lots of time with.  Clearly they fascinate me.  Still, I've never enjoyed being "scared."  Whatever "thrill" there is to haunted mansions or horror movies -- it's always alluded me.  Disneyland's Haunted Mansion is right about my speed -- anything more I avoid.

My husband likes to call me the "chicken of land, sea and air," and that's just fine by me.  I trace it back to early trauma inflicted one night near the dawn of the cable TV era.  We had "On TV" back them (and I remember it as the first cable network ever).  My sister and her beau were celebrating Halloween with a triple dose of The Exorcist and Omen 1 & 2.  I'd been told I was way too babyish, at 11 years old to watch such things (which was true), but I was determined not to wimp out.  Needless to say, I don't think I slept for the next, oh, 2-3 years.  I can still see the plate glass decapitating that woman in Omen 2.  Yuck.

So, I've set up my kiddos with an "Adams Family" marathon and on Halloween night itself, they and the friends they have sleeping over, will watch "Young Frankenstein."  --yes, I like my horror injected with humor.

I'll dutifully trudge around the neighborhood with them as usual, gathering the candy I'll try to get them to toss a few days later.  But the decorating will be confined to carving a few pumpkins.   Pumpkin patches, with their fall flavors are actually my favorite part of the whole shebang!  I'd happily forgo the evening's festivities in favor of an afternoon at a good pumpkin patch  -- hay rides and mazes -- they're more my speed.
Charlotte's first Halloween!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

No. More. Election. Ads.

For the last few weeks my friends and family have complained about the incessant election advertising constantly bombarding them.  Most ads are mean spirited, all are annoying and according to NPR's fact checking, most of them are "Barely True."

It's a problem I have a great deal of sympathy for, but one that, thankfully, I no longer have to deal with myself.  In fact, it's been many years since I've seen an election ad and now I only see them when I purposely choose to go on YouTube and look at one being ridiculed on a national (or international) level, such as Christine O'Donnell's recent (and I must say, HILARIOUS) "I'm Not a Witch" ad:

How did I get so lucky? Well, when my daughters were very young, we chose to eliminate cable television.  We had many reasons for this, and certainly an important one was keeping them free from advertising assaults.  I knew though, that the greatest risk was that I might use the "babysitting" benefits of TV a bit more than I ought.  It was just too easy... always there, always on and a guarantor of instant peace from wailing toddlers.  Now, I'm no saint... I kept the DVD player!  Occasional peace is something I value quite highly and there was no way I was going to go cold turkey.  Nevertheless, this decision gave me a measure of control I'd forgotten about.  I chose the DVDs and I chose when we watched them.  This has worked out amazingly well for my daughters.  They still watch plenty of TV, but very little of it is advertising and I choose the content.

Everything is on DVD or netflix, so we don't feel deprived in the slightest.  In fact, when my kids watch a show like "I Love Lucy" at their grandparents' house, they can't figure out why said grandparents put up with those stupid commercial interruptions every few minutes.  How can they stand it?

When I tell people we don't have cable, they often look at me as though I've told them we don't breathe air.    It's a hard concept for people to grasp at first, but it really has made our lives better.  I now make election decisions based on my own research.  I get my news on the internet, on the topics I'm specifically interested in -- which means that if I don't consider finding out who got voted off Dancing with the Stars last night to be NEWS, I just don't click on that particular news byte J.  Yippee!  I still watched EVERY SINGLE episode of "Lost" and "Mad Men" is an obsession I won't easily give up.  But, come November 2nd I won't need to celebrate the end of election ads -- I can just celebrate... well, my birthday, which happens to fall on election day!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween Cat Costume: Head to Tail!

Halloween knitting is complete.  I made Gracie a cat hat with ears and a kitty cat tail (which I will sew to her black leggings).  The pink yarn for the inside of the ears and the tip of the tail even Glows in the Dark.  How cool is that? Talk about a simple costume:  hat, tail, black leggings, long-sleeved black shirt, black boots -- add some whiskers and a little kitty nose (with face paints) and voila!  Black cat.  The pattern for the hat is here and the Ravelry link is here.  Last week I showed a picture of my sister's version, which served as inspiration:  here.  I made up my own pattern for the tail, but it turned out so darling, I'm including it below even though it's super simple.

Kitty Tail
Yarn:  150-200 yds of worsted weight (any color cat you want :) and Bernat Glow in the Dark (for tip).  I used pink!
Needles: Size 7 dpns

Cast on 21 stitches (divide 7 stitches onto each needle) and join in the round on dpns (being careful not to twist).  Knit in stockinette until your fingers feel as though they're about to drop off (or until you've reached desired length - be careful not to go too long here as you don't want it to drag on the ground).  Then for tip of tail, introduce Glow in the Dark Pink yarn using fair isle technique as follows.  It's beyond simple, but I'll write it out anyway:

Row 1:  K3 black, K1 pink, K6 black, K1 pink, K6 black, K1 Pink, K3 Black.
Row 2:  Repeat Row 1
Row 3:  K2 black, K3 pink, K4 black, K3 pink, K4 black, K3 pink, K2 Black.
Row 4:  Repeat Row 3
Row 5:  K1 black, K5 pink, K2 black, K5 pink, K2 black, K5 pink, K1 Black.
Row 6:  Repeat Row 5
Row 7:  K1 black, K6 pink, K1 black, K6 pink, K1 black, K6 pink.
Row 8   Repeat Row 7
Row 8-15:  Knit all in Pink

Then just Decrease
Row 16:  K5, K2Tog, K5, K2Tog, K5, K2Tog (18 Stitches remain)
Row 17:  K4, K2Tog, K4, K2Tog, K4, K2Tog (15 Stitches remain)
Row 18:  K3, K2Tog, K3, K2Tog, K3, K2Tog (12 Stitches remain)
Row 19:  K2, K2Tog, K2, K2Tog, K2, K2Tog (9 Stitches remain)
Row 20:  K1, K2Tog, K1, K2Tog, K1, K2Tog (6 Stitches remain)
Row 21:  K1, K2Tog, K1 K2Tog (4 Stitches remain)
Row 22:  K1, K2Tog, K1 (3 Stitches remain)
Row 23:  K1, K2Tog (2 Stitches remain)
Row 24:  K2Tog, break yarn and pull through remaining stitch, weave in end (inside out)

Optional:  Stuff with fiberfill and/or make a pompom and sew it to the tip :)

Here's a bonus pic of a pretty girl I know, decked out in her Halloween kitty hat :)
Cute, eh?

Book Review: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)

Let me start this book review of Freedom:  A Novel by saying that I never read The Corrections. At the time it came out, with all the ridiculous hoopla over Franzen not wanting it chosen by Oprah for her book club, I abstained in protest.  I really was insulted.  I'm not a regular watcher of Oprah (who has the time?), but I am a HUGE fan of her book club!

From the start, I thought it was right up there with sliced bread for all-time great ideas.  Love or hate her, Oprah is a massive media force and for her to advocate for books was exactly the injection of mass visibility "reading" (and of course, the publishing industry) needed.  And she wasn't just recommending good books, she was urging vast numbers of viewers to really engage with those books.  They may not all have been classics of literature (though many were... and those that weren't were still interesting and enjoyable reading) and maybe it wasn't graduate level literary analysis, but she encouraged thoughtful and probing questions and often invited the author on her show for even greater visibility.  What more could a literature teacher ask from a media mogul?   I had a friend around that time who despite her incredibly busy schedule told me she was determined to finally sit down and read Anna Karenina over a summer with Oprah's book club.  How often do people make time for such things, post- college general ed requirements?  How often do they do it while simultaneously juggling kids, husband, job?

The recent "book club" phenomenon itself warms the coddles of my heart.  What a wonderful thing:  people taking time from their crazy, busy schedules to not only sit down and read a book, but to then gather with friends and new acquaintances to express their own thoughts about that experience, hear the thoughts of others and challenge each other to consider those views from different perspectives.  In a world of reality TV obsessions, video games and social media, this strikes me as a radical endeavor and cozy too.

The reality though is that Oprah's fans and those taking part in her massive "book club" are predominantly female.  And at it's heart, this is what I felt Franzen was objecting too.  He didn't want to be classified as having anything remotely to do with "chick lit."  Having now read Freedom, I find this incredibly ironic.  His subject matter for this book (and apparently for The Corrections as well), is in fact, modern family life and how it resonates in the modern world.  I'm certainly not saying this is an enthralling topic for all women, but certainly a majority of them find themselves intimately and daily entwined in that subject as not only participants, but leaders, creators, sustainers.  To say he was biting the hands that might feed him, well....  duh!

As you can see, this 10 year old insult of Franzen's still stings -- I'm bitter and I'd love to get him in a room and pour out all my arguments for why his stereotypical thinking on this issue is not only insultingly wrong headed from a feminist perspective, but mind-bogglingly stupid from a publishing perspective.  Apparently though, he has rethought his misogynistic ways -- or at least his publisher has told him in no uncertain terms that he was an idiot and he'd better "correct" things with the big O!  Franzen has returned to Oprah, hopefully crawling on his knees and begging to be considered once again and she has deigned to forgive.  So, far be it from me to question her mercy.  She has selected Freedom for her book club and as I support  all her book club endeavors I read it to display that support.

And I enjoyed it... I really did.  (Yes, the rant is over and the book review is finally underway J.)  I loved the way he drew his characters -- they were not only realistic, but fascinatingly so.  My favorite part of this is a technique he uses that's almost cinematic.  The first 30 pages or so give an overview (long shot) of the characters and outlines about 1/2 the basic plot, but from an outsider's "Here's what the Neighbors Thought" perspective.  The reader can't help drawing conclusions about the characters along with those neighbors.  So you start off feeling as though you "know" them, but then he back peddles and adds such intricate (close-up) depth to each one that not only do you no longer feel "judgmental" about those characters and their actions (as described in the first 30 pages), you actually become them in that way only a really good book elicits.

I loved the disconnect that gave me...  the realization that I'd judged on too little information, too quickly.  It was certainly an interesting commentary on our notion of "knowledge."  We get by on such snippets of information these days, (heck, we're flooded with them on FB/twitter) that this reminder of what gets left out, is eye opening.  If you think you know what your friends'/acquaintances' lives are really like, think again.  Social networking just gives individuals a chance to "paint" their own portrait, it certainly doesn't imply accuracy.

The characters themselves are unique portraits of modern "types," normally caricatured.  They range from an aspiring rock/alt star experiencing artistic neglect and success; an idealistic, environmentally protective organizer forced to work with the reality of the business world; a college aged boy trying to make his own way in a business environment that looks at human life only on a cost/profit basis; and even a basketball jock turned modern housewife with all the "Pottery Barn shopping," "out decorate/remodel the Joneses" competition that can entail, but deepening into a realistic look at love that strikes this reader as not only plausible, but heartbreakingly so.

And of course, he weaves his theme of freedom throughout:  the cost of freedom and the compromises it too often requires.  Because the lives of his characters span the last 30 years or so, he explores how they cope with the political events of those years and how those events intersect their own lives and interests.  In a world made "smaller" by globalization and more intimate by the internet, his book certainly asks us to question what it is we think we know (and "how" we know it).  It was most definitely worth the read.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Typical Teaching Day....

By Holly Van Houten

Ever wondered what homeschoolers do all day?  For today's post, I thought I would describe a typical teaching day at the homeschool center where I work.  Tomorrow I will teach 4 classes of literature and writing, but I would venture to say such a day looks very little like what you think it might.

Homeschoolers just do things, um....  differently.

First up for the day is my Harry Potter class.  It's Arithmancy today, so the students (ranging in age from 7-11) will be learning about prime numbers.  Harry Potter is loaded with them:  There are 7 books in the series, students are eligible for Hogwarts at age 11, they come of age at 17, there are 7 years of schooling before graduation, etc.  The Wizarding monetary system relies on primes:  17 Sickles to a Galleon, 29 knuts to a sickle.   So, as we discuss all of this we'll be creating Wizarding money out of Fimo clay, cookie cutters, stamps and antiquing paint.  This will be a busy class.

Next up at 10:30 is literature and writing for teens.  We've been working on The Taming of the Shrew for the past few weeks and rather than an essay (as we did for The Canterbury Tales) students will be completing a collaborative writing project.  I put them in groups of three and their task was to re-write the ending of the play from the wager (bear baiting the wives scene) on.  Students had about 150 lines to rewrite and I gave them fairly wide parameters for doing so.  They just have to be able to demonstrate how their rewrite illuminates a theme from the play.  In class tomorrow, we'll be filming dramatized versions of their rewrites with students playing the various roles.  Should be interesting :)

Each class, by the way is 90 minutes, so after Read to Write (my official name for the teen lit class), I'll have 30 minutes to run and find my own tykes and get their lunch heated up, etc.  They will have been taking Graphic Design and Flaming Chemistry (Charlotte) and Graphic Design and Pottery (Grace).  Charlotte takes both my afternoon classes and Grace takes Liberty or Death (Revolutionary War projects) and my Percy Jackson.

After lunch I get to work with one of my favorite classes of all time:  my "noveling" students.  I have 12 students (ages 10-14) each writing 15,000 word novels this semester, which we'll publish on, so they walk away with a paperback copy of their own magnum opus.  Today we'll be working on writing dialogue.  To do this we'll be making our own comic strip versions of a few of our scenes to sharpen their ability to write dialogue that helps define their characters and creates tension while moving the story forward.  The rationale behind using comic strips to do this is to limit the amount of space they have in which to accomplish these goals.  We're working on making their writing more concise and less, how shall I put it:  wandering? flailing?  These kids are incredible though.  They're working so hard and each week they add another 1500 words to their overall word count.  I'm just trying to get a few less of those words to be "filler."

Then last up for the day, I'll teach my "Percy Jackson" class.  For those of you unfamiliar with this series (I guess above, I just assumed Harry Potter has entered the general lexicon), the Percy Jackson series of books by Rick Riordan takes Greek mythology and translates it into the modern world.  The concept is that Mt. Olympus (home of the gods) moves with the heart of Western Civilization and democracy and that because the United States is currently the seat of democracy in the west, Mt. Olympus is accessed through the Empire State Bldg (600th floor – special elevator required), the entrance to Hades is in L.A. (of course :) and the labyrinth designed by Daedelus continues to expand and move just underneath the earth’s surface.  The main storyline of the series involves a return of the Titans, battling the greek pantheon for control once again.  

The class spends lots of time looking at various aspects of greek mythology (classical myths and myths as framed by the book).  I send various students on “quests” each week and they come back having written short stories detailing their adventures with the assigned mythological creatures and factual presentations for the class.  This is another hard working group of kids.   Our Greek god of the day for tomorrow is actually the goddess Artemis (the huntress), twin sister of Apollo.  So once our quest reports are finished we'll set about making our own archery equipment from pvc pipe, cotton strings, fairly small diameter dowels, eraser tips and lots of duct tape :)  This is not a craft I've done before, but this picture gives the basic idea.  We'll use these for archery practice when we hold our "Camp Half-Blood" day later this month.  

I wish I could say that's the end of my day, but 3:30 brings more adventures.  At that point, we're usually off to the library:  my own two kids, and usually a few others I babysit or who just also have time to kill before our 7pm Peter Pan rehearsal.  We live an hour from the learning center and rehearsal venue, so there's no going home for a break.  Instead, we get something to eat and find a place to hang out or a park to play in.  Tomorrow, the plan is to go to a pumpkin patch before heading over to the rehearsal.  I generally go grocery shopping while the kids rehearse, but tomorrow we have parent meetings, so shopping will have to wait until after 8pm.  I'm a fairly streamlined shopper, so hopefully we'll be on the road by 8:30pm and home by 9:30.

I'm exhausted just thinking about it!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Pesky Neighbor: The San Andreas Fault

Dragon's Back Pressure Ridge on the Carrizo Plain

Neighbors are such a mixed bag.  The good ones will look after your house when you’re away, offer a friendly wave as you drive by, and sometimes even bring you cookies at Christmas.  The bad ones are often noisy, messy and destructive.   So, what to make of good old Andreas who lives (hermit like, but restless) just down the block?  Some call him a Saint.  Me?  I’m not so sure.   He’s definitely old – at least 5 million years and so, understandably, a bit creaky and unpredictable.  I try to be understanding… apparently, he’s under a lot of pressure.  Still, he’s undeniably a menace, whose threats hang over the neighborhood day and night… all year round.  It’s hard to hate him though.  He’s not exclusively destructive.  His earth shaking, uplifting ways are the source of the breathtakingly beautiful mountain vistas that surround my little dome.   I’m actually a bit of a groupie when it comes to his artistic endeavors. 

I’ve lived fairly close to the San Andreas fault my whole life, but my current proximity is frankly, ludicrous.  To say that it’s at my doorstep would be to exaggerate only by a matter of yards.  To make things even more interesting, I don’t just live along any old bit of the 800 mile stretch of faultline, I live right at the Big Bend!

“This "Big Bend" area is possibly the most significant tectonic area in California today. Here, the San Andreas intersects the left-lateral Garlock fault, the only major east-west trending fault in southern California. Earthquakes are common in this area. The Fort Tejon earthquake in 1857 (was a) magnitude 8-plus."

The schematic block model above gives a good picture of the action of the Pacific and North American plates in this area.  They are literally "squeezing together" here in a pinching sort of way that creates enormous pressure.  

Now, I'm no stranger to earthquakes.  At 4 years old, I was unceremoniously dumped out of my little bed by the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.  We were evacuated after that one because the Van Norman dam threatened to burst.  I was nearly at ground zero for the Northridge earthquake, which woke me with such alarming noise at 4am one morning, that I quite literally believed the world was ending.  The tale of what ensued the rest of that morning will have to be fodder for another post, but suffice it to say that little temblor rearranged my life in rather significant ways.

But what can you do?  I figure I have a beautiful area to live in and predicting earthquakes is a dicey business at best.  I prefer to live my life with the knowledge that my little neighborhood is several decades overdue for a catastrophic quake, lurking somewhere towards the back of my mind.  Awareness is good though, if for preparation purposes only.  So, today as my state does it's own preparation drills as part of the Great California Shake Out, I will go about checking flashlights and batteries, canned goods and water supplies and all the other little necessities of life with no power or outside  access:  a good list is here.  But I can't quite bring myself to live in fear and trembling.  I've had good neighbors and bad every single place I've ever lived.  The benefits of this mountain life far outweigh the risks and I'm content to keep a wary eye on my Saint down the street.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chicken Soup with Rice

I grew up in a home where dinner generally came:

-Frozen, but microwaved in minutes;
-From a drive thru window;
-From a box;
-From Bob’s Big Boy or other similar establishment.

To be fair, my parents divorced when I was six, and neither of them coped well when it came to nourishing the kiddos.  My Mom worked all day and came home understandably too tired to cook.  Not that weekends or summers (she was a teacher) were any different.  Cooking just really wasn’t her thing.  It was the 70s, she was bringing home the bacon, but had pretty much no interest in “frying it up in the pan.”  To this day, she considers “heat and serve” bacon a gift from the gods.  My Dad’s cooking skills (pre-stepmom) were pretty much in the hamburger helper range (though he quickly trained my sister and me in the basic preparation skills required for that – I was a whiz at making his instant coffee too).   Frankly, I remember a LOT of McDonalds and Taco Bell and could wax nostalgic about waiting in drive-thru lines and gobbling French fries on the way home in the car, too tempted by smells I now know were chemically manufactured, to wait for more formal dining arrangements.  What I don’t remember are sit down style meals where basic standard classics like chicken soup were featured.

Of course this situation wasn’t without its perks – I never had to set the table, clear it or do the dishes.  I did, though, grow up with the impression that cooking was difficult and mysterious.  Imagine my astonishment the first time I made chicken soup with rice.  I was determined to make it from scratch and figured it would be an all-afternoon ordeal of preparation.  I remember that day in the kitchen, ingredients in hand, recipe book at the ready, hours in front of me.  Turns out though, the whole shebang is nothing more than filling a pot with water, tossing in chopped onion, celery, carrots and a cut up chicken.  And heck, the butcher even cuts up the chicken for you.  Truth be told, effort-wise, it takes a great deal less energy than driving through, well, anywhere.  I dare you to spend more than 5-10 minutes on prep even if you’re the slowest chopper on the planet.  It’s mega-cheap too, since the market regularly has chicken on sale.  

Since this is what I made last night (it perfectly fit the ambience of the thunderstorm raging outside), I’m going to include my recipe here.  Just in case any of you grew up in similarly “home cooking deprived” households.

Chicken Soup with Rice
Salt/Pepper/Thyme/Sage (whatever you like)
(note: I put no amounts because frankly, whatever you have will work… it’s a very forgiving recipe)

Fill a huge pot with water, throw in chopped onion (I generally use 1 or 2), carrots (4-6), celery (a head) and the chicken.  At this point I put in a Tbsp or so of salt, but add more later to taste.   Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for about an hour.  Take out the chicken and let it cool (or use rubber gloves) and peel the meat off the bones to throw back in the pot.  Add the rice, let it cook about 15 minutes more, season to taste and voila: a huge pot of deliciousness (undreamed of in my youth)

That’s it.  Make a huge amount, because it’s even better the next day.  Optional:  Sing Carole King’s rockin’ version of Maurice Sendak’s classic poem “Chicken Soup with Rice” and consider yourself tres domestic J

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The perils of being an Adjunct Professor!

"Higher education is probably one of the only sectors of the national workplace where one regularly finds two people with similar credentials, working side by side at comparable jobs, and experiencing such extreme pay gaps."

Lucky me!  This is the story of my life.  The work is just as difficult -- maybe even more so, since adjuncts tend to go above and beyond the call of duty (job security being nil).  And still, the pay is ridiculous.  The national average pay for adjunct professors is $3,000/class.  Crazy!  So, if I taught 4 classes a semester for 2 semesters/year I'd earn a whopping $24,000/year.  Yet, this being a "full load" for tenured professors, they would make $117,000/year (national average) and they'd get health care, sick days, vacation pay, sabbaticals and pension!  To make things worse, I chose a subject (writing) where the weekly grading load is by far the greatest.  This makes teaching 4 classes of writing a great deal more time consuming than, say 4 classes of history or anthropology.  I not only have to prep classroom lectures, but if I have 25 writing students in a class, each writing 5 page essays every 2 weeks, I'm grading 50 essays a week.  Grading a 5 page essay "well" takes me 30 minutes, easy.  So, in addition to 12 hours of lectures each week and 4-6 office hours, I have 25 hours of grading.  Add in another 8-10 hours of prepping for lectures and you have well over a 50 hour work week.   Even in graduate school though, I couldn't survive on $24,000/year.  So one semester, I famously taught 8 classes.  Yes:  8!  I don't think I slept more than 5-6 hours a night for 4 months and even then I could've been making a vast amount more money as a secretary.

Sorry for the rant, but as I sit considering future employment and ways to contribute cash to our hard hit recession household, the realities of my employment possibilities are once again hitting home.  10 years of graduate school and degrees from UCLA and USC have netted me the future detailed above.  Available tenure-track professor positions were practically unheard of when I was in graduate school and I knew plenty of highly qualified and impressively CV'd, fellow English grad students at USC who ended up taking temporary community college jobs in absolute hell holes in the middle of Nowhere, Texas or Podunk, Oklahoma for under $30,000/year just to get work.   Now though, having been out of academia for nearly 10 years raising and homeschooling my own kids, I have no chance of getting anything close to a tenure-track professorship.  Sure, I'm teaching at a homeschool Learning Center (and believe me, the prep for that is often more intense than for my old writing courses - though thankfully the class sizes are smaller), but that would mean nothing to search committees, were I silly enough to apply for full-time work at even a community college.  Oh, they'd snap me up in a minute if I were willing to work for the $3,000/class slave wages detailed above.  I could line up another "8 class semester" full of adjunct writing courses in a flash.   But,  frankly, that's not possible with kids and even when my kids are older I can't imagine doing that to myself again.  I'd rather take my fancy schmancy degrees, from my fancy schmancy universities and go brew coffee at Starbucks -- barista pay would be close to the same, I'd work many dozen fewer hours per week and maybe even get a discount on coffee.   How sad is that?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nano Novel Percolating!

Two weeks.... two weeks!  That's all the time I have left until NANOWRIMO begins.  I'm not the fly by the seat of my pants, no plot/no problem, type of gal and since I've been preaching the value of outlines and planning to my creative writing students all semester, I feel obliged to get my act together here and soon.  So, I've made a couple of decisions.  It will be a YA novel, with an escape type plot.  The main characters will be a brother and sister (I thinking angry and alienated) and I'm going to throw them into the woods, survivalist style (though they'll have a few amenities).  There will definitely be themes of abandonment, estrangement and  probably anti-tech.  I will undoubtedly find a way to get some character knitting something at some point and since I'm feeling Halloween in the air, I'll probably throw in a witch for good measure.  That said, I may completely change my mind by tomorrow.  Still, that's what's brewing now!  Any thoughts?

Holiday Knitting Begins...

Yep -- it's that time of year again and holiday knitting is in full swing. XMAS presents are on the needles, but the first priority is going to have to be a non-Christmas item. Indeed, this year the festivities will begin with Halloween. Gracie has decided to be a black cat (specifically, a character from a book called The Witch Family, Charlotte will be a "witch" character from the same novel).  We have black leggings and a long-sleeved black t-shirt, so she's lacking ears and a tail.  These I'll be supplying - hopefully in time for the first Halloween party on the 23rd.  So, I have a week....  

My sister Kate has already knit a kitty hat, so I've decided to copy hers only in black.  I also have some Bernat pink yarn that, get this -->  Glows in the Dark!  How cool is that?  I'll use that for the center area of the ears and probably make the ears a little bigger overall.  Here is a picture of Kate's and when I've completed mine, I'll post it too:
I'm not as clear on how I'll do the tail.  None of the patterns on Ravelry are grabbing me at the moment.  I'm thinking maybe a long tube (double yarn and big needles) and then just stuffing it with fiberfill and some wire, maybe making the tip with the same glow in the dark pink.

Anyway, that's the plan.  Stay tuned :)

I am the very model.....

Politics and music are just colliding for me lately.  A friend posted this on facebook and I love it!  As a child I had an intense fling with Gilbert and Sullivan (basically, when Linda Ronstadt made her version of Pirates of Penzance).  I fell in love with Kevin Kline as Pirate King and now I think I'll always see Obama as the Modern Major General...  I mean "Modern U.S. President:"

Friday, October 15, 2010

It's an Ironic World After All.....

Sorry to mix my musical metaphors, but um... Toto?  Did you know that Obama and Palin are distant cousins.  Yup!  I love this little bit of info and wish I'd had it earlier this semester to help illustrate the notion of "Irony" in my literary comedy class.

But, wait... it gets better J Obama has another surprising cousin -- Rush Limbaugh!  Seriously, I'm not making this up.  This was part of an AP News Release from 2 days ago.  I must quote:

"A genealogist at the Utah-based, Anastasia Tyler, said Obama and Palin are 10th cousins through a common ancestor named John Smith, a pastor and early settler in 17th-century Massachusetts. Obama is related to Smith through his mother, as is Palin, Tyler said.
"Smith was against the persecution of the Quakers," Tyler said in an interview. "He was a very socially conscious man."
As for Limbaugh, he's also a 10th cousin of the president — one time removed — through a common ancestor named Richmond Terrell, who Tyler said was a large landowner in Virginia, also in the 17th century. "His history is a little more nebulous," Tyler said."
And frankly, the 17th century (relatively speaking) isn't so very long ago.  Of course, the fact of their familial relation doesn't in itself demonstrate irony -- family feuds are hardly uncommon.  The irony here is tinged for me by the barely beneath the surface racism encouraged by Palin and Limbaugh through their encouragement of groups that question Obama's religion, place of birth, etc.  
It all just makes me want to break out in song:  

There's so much that we share,
That it's time we're aware,  
It's a Small World After All! 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chilean Miners Rescued.... I smell a Bill Bryson book!

All over the world people woke to the gratifyingly happy news that at long last the Chilean miners, trapped half a mile underground for the last 69 days, were now being pulled one by one to the surface through a 28” diameter hole in a capsule just slightly smaller than that.  Waiting for these miners above ground are their families, government leaders, medical care, and of course the media broadcasting footage of their rescue to a planet eager to hear the happy ending to this dramatic saga.  It’s as if we’ve all been reading the same suspenseful novel and now are communally experiencing the denouement.

…which got me thinking -- who would I want to write this epic tale.  It must, of course, BE written.  It begs for it!  But I don’t think I want a fictional rendering, though a first person memoir would be fascinating.  No, what I really want is Bill Bryson to write this story.  He’s not primarily a novelist, though his The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid reads much like a novel.  What I’m thinking of though, is more along the lines of what he did in A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Bryson would take this story and run with it.  He’d find out all the fascinating bits about the history of the mining industry, the history of Chile, the geologic landscape of the mine, the physics of the rescue, along with the most interesting details about the personal experiences of these miners and their families and the rescue workers who saved them.  Most importantly, he’d make every last bit of minutiae entertaining to read about.  He's long been one of my favorite writers and I know his version of this story would be excellent.  I must find a way to suggest it to him.  Hmmm.... do you think he'd "friend" me on facebook?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Gearing up for NANOWRIMO

After a year's hiatus, I'm returning this November for my 3rd NANOWRIMO (or National Novel Writing Month).  If you've never heard of this, check out their website.  This is one of the most challenging writing challenges I've ever taken on and somehow, despite the stress, I have a blast with it.  It's very motivating to be sweating out word count deadlines with hundreds of thousands of others and very freeing to completely abandon my inner editor and just write at a breakneck speed.  The outcome isn't always spectacular, but having done it twice -- I have one novel I really like (and my daughters love) and a second that's pretty cruddy, but taught me a lot.  Not bad.  There are a number of novelists who wrote their books during NANOWRIMO, including Sara Gruen who wrote Water for Elephants one dark November.

Now, it's true -- only a man with absolutely no responsibilities for Thanksgiving meals would schedule such a thing in November.  Apparently, Chris Baty chose November because he thought it was a dull month with nothing much happening.  Hah!  Clearly, he doesn't have 40 or so of his nearest and dearest over for turkey and trimmings or if he does, he's not the one doing the cooking and cleaning.  Our idyllic mountain location makes us the family destination for a huge Thanksgiving Turkey bash, which includes my sis and her family staying for 5-6 days that week too.  It's an event we look forward to all year, making November just about the toughest month possible for me -- but heck, just heap that onto the challenge :)

This year I'm extra geared up because I'm teaching a Creative Writing class that has already begun a 10-week version of Nano with a goal of 15,000 words.  They're waiting for me to put my money where my mouth is and get started too.  So, now all I need is a plot.... any ideas?

International Blogging Sensation!!!

Well... okay.  Maybe I'm exaggerating a wee bit.  Still, a quick check of my blogging statistics tells me the country of origin for readers of my blog.  They look like this:

United States
Hong Kong
United Kingdom

Now, it's very cool that 239 people from the U.S. have read the blog (or accidentally stumbled upon it and quickly departed), but it definitely gives me a little thrill to see the 1 or 2 entrances from other nations.  Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, the hits from Hungary are no doubt my sis, who's living there for her Fulbright Scholarship this year.  Still, I have no sisters in Italy, Bulgaria, Hong Kong, etc., so I claim full credit for those.  Kinda fun :)

The Comforts of Noro...

I just adore knitting Noro striped scarfs.  They're tremendously comforting, the saturated colors are truly gorgeous and the constant surprise of how they will match up makes every new row an ongoing feast for the eyes.  How's that for gushing?  I can't help it.

If I had to knit the same project over and over for the rest of my life -- this would be it.  This little beauty goes to Gracie and yes, she has been exhorted not to leave it around for our ferocious little kittens (who both seem to have it in for fiber projects of all shapes and sizes) to find and abuse as their new play toy.