Tuesday, July 31, 2012

End of summer, already

I have not felt much like writing here lately. Perhaps it's the lethargy of late summer, the fact that there are so many things pulling on my attention. I did write a rather lengthy and ranty post about people making excuses to not ride their bikes, which annoys me. It happens all the time that I bike somewhere and someone says, "That's awesome! I was totally going to ride my bike, but...." It's like someone telling an author, "I have a book in mind and I'm totally going to write it, someday." Everyone has excuses, the difference is that some people ignore the little voice saying, "You don't really need to do that...."
However, the post itself just ended up sounding snarky and mean, which is not at all what I wanted. I do understand the allure of excuses. I give in to them all the time. My trick is simply to create situations in which there are no excuses. For instance, I still haven't called our friend about checking out the truck and fixing it. So, I've created a situation in which I have no choice but to ride my bike everywhere. When Shane is home, we generally take the motorcycle for the two of us. Mostly because he left his own bicycle up at camp. However, when it's just me I still ride my bike. I rode it over to softball last night because Shane isn't on the team and wasn't going. If we'd had the truck, I almost certainly would have given into the allure of spending the extra ten minutes or so of time I would have gotten from driving rather than biking with Shane. This way, I left myself with no excuses, no reasons not to.
This system isn't, of course, merely applicable to biking. There are so many other ways and times to create an excuse-proof system to make changes in your life. Want to eat healthier? Don't buy junk food. We rarely drink soda, and only exclusively when we go out, because we don't keep it stocked at home. (That saves SO much money, too!) There are always ways to make the default option the one you know is best, and usually it only takes a small amount of effort to create that situation.
I can't believe we've already reached the end of summer here. If you're out of state, you probably think that's crazy, but it's true. The beginning of August (tomorrow!) marks the increasingly rapid end of summer. The Tanana Valley Fair starts this weekend, and in just a few short weeks we'll start seeing the first of the yellowing leaves. Though we've had several hot days (near the 80's), the mornings are starting to get chilly. My toes were red with cold when I biked to work this morning, and my boss said that her windows were almost frosty.
All of this is not bad, of course. This means that it's pretty much blueberry season. I need to arrange times with friends in which to go blueberry picking soon. I'm not going to get the gallons and gallons of blueberries we want if I don't go often!
Also, the garden is reaching its most productive stage. It's a race now between the tomatoes ripening and the first frosts. My large tomatoes still haven't started turning red, but they're getting even bigger and I'm confident that they'll ripen up soon. It's all the ones which are still pretty small that I'm cheering on.
The peas have started going crazy. Shane and I went out to the porch so I could show him the garden progress last night and he kept popping out after that to grab some pea pods for munching. We even pulled the first two fat carrots and ate them after doing nothing more than brushing off the dirt. (It's my favorite way to eat carrots! Yum.) Shane declared them "the coolest little carrots ever". (Parisienne carrots, y'all. They're awesome.) I'll probably start pulling some out next week to blanch and freeze. (Yes, I'll leave some for plain eating.)
I still haven't picked a single zucchini. :( I have several, but they're not as large as I'm used to them getting. However, the largest I'll probably pick this week to shred and freeze. Or maybe to cook up and eat? I'm not sure yet.
I was completely surprised to notice that one of my winter squashes has about five different little fruits started on it. I think it's a pumpkin, from the shape of them. I didn't think that they'd put anything out this late. Hopefully, I'll have a few homegrown pumpkins to put away. At this point, they'll probably be rather small, but I can always do a little bit to help by making sure they get enough fertilizer.
I hope this warm, sunny weather holds for a few more weeks so that everything has enough time to get big and ripen. At the moment, all of my energy seems to be focused on getting everything together, making it all ready for autumn and then winter. So if I don't post often, I'm just too busy!

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Beatles were wrong

Happiness is a large puddle.
Let me explain. First of all, I hate to brag, especially since it's not something we want. But while the rest of the country suffers from severe drought, we've had pretty much a solid week of rain and cloudiness here. I was happy for the first day or so, but now it's getting old. I really wish the rain would move on to other parts of the country which so desperately need it!
I made it in to work yesterday when it was only sprinkling. Five minutes later, it was pouring and I thanked the powers that be for having held it off that long. I was not so lucky after work. My bike doesn't have splatter guards over the tires so I not only get rain in my face, I get splashed by the rain and mud that's kicked up by my tires. It's not pleasant. I've started wearing sunglasses when it's really rainy so that I can at least see, otherwise I'm squinting through all the wetness in my eyes and it's just a bad situation.
On my way home yesterday I was mentally grumbling about how wet and muddy it is, how filthy I was getting, etc, and suddenly I remembered something that happened a long, long time ago.
When I was in sixth grade, one of the sewers on my cul-de-sac got stopped up over the winter. Being Washington, that meant some pretty serious flooding on the street. It was a wide road, and the sewer was, of course, in a low point. Well, we had some epic rains one week and that part of the road flooded so much that if it hadn't been a road, it would have been considered a small pond. This puddle went from one side of the road to the other and almost reached the top of the sidewalks in places. (A good 6 inches deep, in other words.) What's a kid to do? Ride their bike through the puddle, of course! I spent several hours out there, riding back and forth, seeing how big a splash I could make, seeing how fast I could go through the puddle. A friend joined me and by the end of it, we were soaked from head to toe. I ended up stripping down in the laundry room where my mother brought me a towel, so that I wouldn't get the floors all wet. It was a marvelous afternoon.
Thinking of that, I realized that, hey! I'm on my way home! I didn't have anything I needed to do, no real reason to keep my clothes pristine and un-muddied. There was no reason why riding in the rain should make me unhappy. I spent the rest of the ride home splashing my way through puddles, getting my pants and even my shirt soaked with water and splattered with mud. I stripped down on the landing in the garage (praying that the neighbors wouldn't come home just then--they didn't) so that I wouldn't get my own floors wet, and I had a grin from ear to ear. Every once in a while, it's nice to remember that childish fun is still fun when you're an adult. When life gives you puddles, splash in them.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Barley flour adventures

Since buying a 10 lb bag of barley flour, I've been forced into the realization that it's very, very different from wheat flour. For one thing, I simply cannot do a 1-1 substitution. The barley flour seems to add a bit of wetness to dough and it turns out much, much harder to handle. It made some terrible loaves of bread, at least when I tried it with my normal recipes. Even the no-knead bread, which thankfully rose well enough, turned into disaster. You see, no-knead bread requires a very, very hot dutch oven. The recipe I've been using has me heat it up to 475^ before putting the dough in it. I forgot just how hot this makes the oven, and stupidly used only one potholder in each hand when I pulled it out. (At that temp, I generally use two potholders in each hand.) So, in danger of getting my hand burned through the potholder, I quickly set it down on the first available surface. Then when I tried to transfer the flour-covered dough into the dutch oven, it was sticking horribly to the counter. So what's normally a quick and easy transfer turned into several minutes of me scraping the dough off the counter and haphazardly throwing it into the oven. The dough looked pretty funny, but I can deal with poor aesthetics in my baking.
What sucked was that, in my panic, I didn't quite realize that I'd put the very hot oven lid onto a cutting board. A plastic cutting board. So the lid melted into the plastic, and I ended up putting the bread in the oven with no lid. It came out slightly undercooked in the middle, but that seems to be a trend with all of the barley bread I've made. Even using less than half barley flour, it's just too wet.
Anyway, back to the cutting board. I panicked and threw some ice around it, hoping that the plastic would contract and let the lid go once it was no longer still melting. It didn't work. Then I thought about what Shane would say when he got home to find the lid melted into the cutting board. (This happened about three days before he came home.) So I called J, who I knew would have tools that could help me break the cutting board away from the lid, if it came to that. We'd already been planning that they would come and pick me up that day so that we could go to a few stores together, so he promised to take a look at it when they came over.
About five minutes before I thought they'd arrive at my house I tried one last desperate thing. I put the cutting board on the floor, put a foot on each side of it, and pulled up on the lid as hard as I could. It didn't take long to release the lid, thankfully. (Which didn't seem to have any plastic residue, but I washed it thoroughly anyway.) The cutting board had a nice circle melted into it, right in the most inconvenient place. Then I thought about calling my brother-in-law, who gave us the cutting board when he moved, to lie for me if Shane asked him and say that it had always been there. Then I figured I'd save that for something big, something Shane would actually be mad about.
I thought I was home-free for a bit. Shane didn't say anything for a couple of days after getting home. He even used the cutting board without saying a word. Finally, last Wednesday, he asked, "So, what happened with the cutting board?" I innocently said, "What?" Then he gave me his most baleful glance as he said, "I'm not stupid. This was not here when I left. You must have melted it with something. Like a lid?" I said again, "Umm, what?" but I was laughing. He was trying to figure out what could have done it so I broke down and told him the whole story. I thought he'd scold me for "being stupid", but he thought it was funny enough that he didn't say a word about that.
Anyway, the one use of the barley flour that I've found is excellent is in pancakes. Because of the difference barley gives to the dough you need to cook them longer and on lower heat, otherwise they burn quickly. But once I figured that out I was turning out lovely golden-brown pancakes, sweet enough to not require syrup or really any topping but a bit of butter. Mmmm, so yummy! I just looked up a recipe on the internet, in case you're wondering.
And I re-tried the no-knead bread. This time it worked well. I only used one cup of barley flour (out of six cups of flour) and added one cup of oats in addition to all the flour. Because the oats soak in the wet bread dough mix overnight, by the time they bake they've pretty much dissolved. There was absolutely no texture difference, but a lovely oat-y flavor. Best of all, they soaked up whatever wetness the barley flour adds to the dough. I'm going to keep working on it, seeing just how high a ratio of barley flour I can put into the bread because it's quite tasty. And I'm trying to use as little AP flour as possible.
I'll keep looking for more barley recipes, and telling you when I find good ones. It is tasty flour, and I definitely like supporting the local farmers who grow it.
In other flour news, I opened up a brand new 50 lb bag of flour to make the bread the other night and moths started flying out of it!! I was so shocked I just watched them for a second before I had the presence of mind to close the bag securely again. I taped it down and called the Alaska Feed Co., where I bought the flour. Wonderful customer service! They said they'll replace it for me, totally free. I just need to get the bag over there. So L is going to drive me over this weekend, before we stop at the farmer's market. Whew!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A few more garden pics

I'm so proud of myself! I'm finally growing tomatoes! I mean, more than a few tomatoes! Most of them are still just the size of peas, but a few are getting quite large. And it's not just one kind, either, it's both the "Cassady's Folly"
and the "Cosmonaut Volkov" tomatoes which are crazily producing. I've been pretty careful about trying to pick off the suckers and some of the branches without flowers so that more energy and nutrients go into ripening the tomatoes. Actually, at this point some of the branches with flowers are coming off too. If I let them, these poor plants would try to produce several hundred tomatoes (I've counted over 30, and those are just the ones I've found; there are also another hundred or so flowers on the plants). And all this from just four of my plants! I'm totally keeping these tomatoes on my list of ones to keep growing in the future.
Two of my biggest "Cosmonaut Volkov"s. Can you believe I didn't notice these ones at all for a while? What's even worse is that there's an equally big tomato right next to them that I didn't notice even when I was taking the picture!

You never really think about it, but finding some produce is rather hard. At this stage, all of my tomatoes are green and on green plants. Can you blame me for missing some? They're not small plants, either, and they keep growing. So I have no idea what an accurate count of my current tomato crop is, just that it's above 30.
I'm finding this same difficulty with my peas. I can look at a pea plant once and not find anything. Go back five minutes later and suddenly I've spotted a giant pea pod! How did I miss that before? So I've been looking over my pea plants very, very carefully. I'm sure it would look crazy if someone else was watching me, since I'm so intent and trying not to miss anything about these plants. But I'd rather look crazy and gather the fruits of my toils.
I've started collecting some fireweed flowers so that I can make fireweed jelly. I've never actually done it before, at least not that I can remember, but my grandmother made it. I remember it as being very sweet with a mild flowery flavor. I'll need at least 2 1/2 very packed cups of flowers (at the moment I only have about 2) but I'm actually aiming for 5 cups. That should make about 6 cups of jelly.
You can use the buds as well, but they're such pretty flowers that I'd rather see them bloom. Plus, when I was out I saw a bunch of honeybees collecting pollen from the flowers and I don't want to take that away from them. I bothered the bees as little as possible, waiting to pick flowers until they were done with them, since they have as much right to collect the pollen as I do to collect the flowers. From the number of bees I saw, I suspect someone in my neighborhood has a hive or two.
I'll post more details about the jelly making after I actually try it. :)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Boom and Bust

There was an article today in the Huffington Post about one of Shell's arctic drilling ships running aground in Dutch Harbor. Of course, Shell has issued a rather huffy response saying that no such thing happened, but the pictures tell their own story.
Lots of focus will be--and should be--spent on what this means for Arctic drilling. The fact that they can't keep control of one of their ships in waters far south of the Arctic Sea is a troubling sign of what will probably be a more exaggerated problem when (if! please, if!) drilling gets started. This is a serious problem and not something to be taken lightly. I'm glad the article even called out Senator Murkowski for trying to help block Greenpeace.
But the one thing they never talked about was the economics. Yes, they mention the billions of dollars that can be made from such a venture. I'm sure that, if this gets going, plenty of workers will come from other places and make a lot of money. Will it actually help the average Alaskan? Only because those outside workers will be forced to spend some of their money here. And yes, there will be some Alaskans who get hired on, mostly for things like grunt work. But the bulk of the jobs will most likely go to people from outside the state.
Alaska has already been through several boom and bust cycles. The gold rush, the pipeline days. My parents still talk about the pipeline days and just how easy things were around here. You know what happened after the pipeline finished? It caused a state recession which forced my family to move because there simply were not enough jobs, let alone jobs that paid well enough to keep a family of six afloat. The boom years are great, and I'm sure people around here would love them. But the article didn't focus on what happens after the boom, when bust comes around again and people who can afford it flee the state. Those who don't have the money or resources to flee are stuck in a place where money has suddenly dried up like a creek in a drought. I don't think I need to describe the devastation that happens to a place when funding dries up, since that's what we're seeing nationally right now. It can be rather catastrophic, no? Would that make you happy, to see what's coming and not be able to stop it? That's the position I feel like I'm in right now.
Nationally, we're going through a bust cycle coming off the boom years. It's been a long time coming, and what usually happens is happening. Poor people are figuratively being thrown under the bus with services, public transportation, and welfare being cut. When the average person can't make it, can you imagine what it's like for the poor? Now imagine that in Alaska, where it's easy to freeze to death if you can't pay your heating bill. Where the electric company shuts off your electricity even in the depths of winter for not paying. Where poverty is already quite high, and people live on the brink of destitution even in the best of times. Think of the starvation as people make the decision, heat or eat? (This is already quite a common problem for many Alaskans.)
I don't want any of this for my state. I think we need to find a more sustainable economy. If people don't make as much money in the short-term, I'm fine with that. A more sustainable economy would mean that everyone gets their fair share, not just those willing to rape the environment. We need to work our way away from an economy based around oil. We have so many other natural resources which are threatened or damaged by the extraction industries, and the politicians just don't get it. What they see is the money, not the land or the people who will be truly affected.
Can you tell I'm getting a bit jaded about our supposed "leadership"? I'm just not sure what I can do to create change, other than by speaking out in my silly little blog. I know there's a way to create a more sustainable Alaska, to capitalize on all that we have in a way which doesn't wreck the environment. I just don't feel that it's getting enough attention, from the media or the politicians.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pardon Me

I've been a bit absent lately. I've been busy, yes, but really I just haven't felt much like writing.
The opera went well. Opening night, when we stood for the applause, I could see that a girl in the front row had been crying. What an indescribable feeling to know that we moved someone to tears! Apparently at the end of the show when Rodolfo realized that Mimi was dead and threw himself over her in grief, many people forgot that he was acting. I wish I could have seen it. That is absolutely the only thing I don't like about playing in these shows!
It was also fun just to see people walking into the theater. Most had pulled out their evening wear for the night at the opera. It's such a change from Fairbanks's usual super informal dress code that it made it all the more fun. The show was held at one of the local high schools, not some fancy concert hall like the Disney Concert Hall in L.A. or Benaroya Hall in Seattle, but that didn't matter. I love this community.
I did get around to weeding my garden several times over the weekend and discovered something that made me rather ashamed--two pea plants I hadn't even realized I had. Whoops! They weren't on my little garden chart at all, and they were in the area I'd let go wild. Not any more. I cleared some space for them and they're doing better than they should be. One of them even has a pea started on it.
When I checked on my tomatoes I was shocked to discover that they actually have fruit on them. And not just one or two, either, but over 30! I've been watching my plants mostly from a small distance, knowing that in their buckets they don't need much beyond water and a little fertilizer now and then. Now I can't stop obsessively checking them to see if the tomatoes have grown at all, as if they'd visibly grow between when I started weeding the garden and when I ended. But I still need to check.
Lazy gardening has paid off once again. I meant to water the garden last night but completely forgot in the flurry of getting things done before Shane left this morning. However, it started raining during the night and hasn't stopped yet so there's no need to artificially water. Like I said, lazy gardening.
I harvested more rhubarb over the weekend. Some from L's neighbor, who has a large plant that she doesn't do anything with, and some from my own plants. Hurray! I've got just about two gallons of rhubarb stored so far, though I need more like 10-15 for how much we eat over the winter. :) L also told me that lately she's been making rhubarb scones. I must get the recipe from her! Those sound amazing.
We bottled Shane's latest homebrew (a pale ale) last night while cooking dinner, and decided to try something unusual. Shane wanted to see if he could make hard apple cider. Since, of course, it's not apple season, and anyway it would be hideously expensive to make it straight from apples (it requires a full bushel, 42 lbs.), and there's no cidery at which to get said apples pressed, we bought 5 gallons of apple cider from the store. Shane did the heating and then cooling, adding the yeast and some brown sugar (to help the fermenting process) last night and we pitched it (put it in the fermenter) just before bed. It was slowly bubbling away this morning, so it's started the fermenting process. We'll see how that goes.
I'm a bit worried about our cat. Like most of his species, he's generally rather graceful. He's also an accomplished jumper since we've seen him getting over the back fence, which is taller than I am. This morning, however, he knocked over the dog gate a couple of times because he apparently didn't clear it. That was odd enough by itself, but then when I fed him breakfast he failed the leap to the top of the chest freezer, about waist-high for me. The last time I saw him jumping so badly was when he hurt his back after being gone for the better part of three days. So I'm wondering, could he have gotten into a fight with something during one of his nightly sojourns? I followed him once when he hopped the fence and found him facing off with another cat, hissing at each other from a short distance. (As soon as he made the other cat leave, he hopped back over our fence into the yard. Apparently, he just felt the need to defend the house.) Perhaps he met a cat that wasn't scared off by a bit of posturing and hissing? I'm going to watch him carefully for a bit to make sure he doesn't need a trip to the vet. I can't even imagine how I would do that by myself, except by borrowing J&L's cat carrier and getting a ride from someone. What a pain that would be!
The dog managed to mess the floor, twice, within ten minutes of Shane's leaving this morning. That was lovely to wake up to, especially since I didn't sleep much from 5:00 (the time of Shane's first alarm) on. >(

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What makes a healthy diet?

Am I the only one who's getting disgusted with nutritional advice? Sometimes I feel as if I'm the only one who's made the connection between the advent of nutrition science and the fact that we've only gotten fatter and sicker since scientists started telling people how to eat. Not that I want to bash science, or scientists, but I think that we don't have nearly a complete picture of what makes and keeps us healthy and trying to give nutritional advice based on science, which is necessarily reductionist in nature, is both absurd and harmful. The fact that people simply are not educated in science as well as they should be adds to the problem.
Add in the number of myths that are still circulating and our system of divining what's healthiest for us is perfectly designed to confuse, rather than educate and enlighten. Take eggs, for instance. It used to be gospel that eggs were bad for you because they'd raise your cholesterol. People said this simply because egg yolks have cholesterol in them. But you know what? There is not one scrap of scientific evidence that eggs actually increase your blood cholesterol. That didn't stop companies from jumping into the market (there's always a new market for "healthy" processed foods that replace "bad" natural foods when science says something is bad for us) with egg substitutes. I still read plenty of articles from nutritionists about eating only egg whites and I want to slap my forehead. People have been eating whole eggs for thousands of years and how many of them died from eating eggs? (Remember, it's only been a very recent phenomena in human history that we've died from diet-related diseases.)
I laugh at the ads I've seen for food products that tout their supposed healthiness. Margarine sold with omega-3 fortification, almond or soy milk with B12 fortification for vegans and vegetarians, "pro-biotic" yogurt, "Vitamin Water", sugar-bomb children's cereals shouting about the vitamins they've been fortified with, things proclaiming how healthy they are because they're no fat, low fat, or low in calories, low in sugar. "Lite" foods crack me up--they've started using fake words to market their fake foods.
None of those things makes a food inherently good. Adding into our diets one thing that's healthy doesn't negate all of the crap we feed ourselves with. The reason all these foods need to be fortified, or to have things added into them, is because they're inherently unhealthy. They have no nutritional value beyond what's been artificially put into them. Scary thought, right? Think of how many truly empty calories you've eaten in your life. Blech. Thinking of my own diet from childhood up until the past couple of years, it was really terrible.
The best diet advice that I know of is simply this: eat foods that don't need to be fortified, choose the least packaged foods (they tend to be less processed), go organic when possible, and stuff as many fruits and vegetables in yourself as you possibly can. When I see that something has been fortified, I drop the box and run for the produce aisle. (Ok, maybe I'm not quite that dramatic.) Whole fruits and vegetables don't need to be fortified because they have everything you need already in them. As long as you're not eating just one type of fruit or vegetable, you'll get the full range of nutrients you need to be healthy. It's simple, really.
There's been a lot of news over the last few years about lawmakers trying to ban people on food stamps from buying unhealthy foods like chips and soda. Yes, I can agree that chips and soda, and processed cookies, are bad for people. Do I think food stamps should be spent on them? Not really. But I also don't think that anyone should really be spending money on those items. Eating crap food is not, as so many would love to believe, simply done by poor people and I feel that this is just one more way to stigmatize being poor. It feels not so much like an effort to make poor people healthier so much as it is something new to show them, "You're poor and that makes you not as good as the rest of us, so we can take away your choices and rights." Not cool.
It also gets back to the realm of who decides what constitutes "healthy". Food corporations? Science? The government? They've clearly already done a great job with that. Hearing from other people about supplemental programs, it's crazy what's considered "good" and what's "bad". Someone who used WIC when she had young children said that sugary juice and Life cereal were on the ok to buy list, while fruit wasn't. I can't be the only one who wants to ask those in charge of WIC, "WTF?"
I don't need science to tell me what foods are healthy. The ones humans have been eating for all of history, up until the 20th century, are the ones I'd prefer to stick to. I'm very thankful that science can tell us why something is good for us, but I'm going to leave my decisions about what to eat to centuries of human knowledge.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How's that treatin' you?

My legs are exhausted, but they're not going to get a break until tomorrow. I've managed to follow through on my plan to bike everywhere for a while. Biking to work, to the store when I need to go, to the farmer's market, and even across town to the opera rehearsals with my instrument on my back. (It's about a 20 minute ride, depending on the traffic lights and how many cars try to run me over.) From all the bumps, cracks, and pits in the sidewalks, roads, and bike trails my tires have gone about half flat, making things even more difficult. Shane stole the tire pump and took it up to work when he took his bike up, for recreation and exercise and so that he gets to do stuff like bike on top if the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. How many people get to say they've done that?
To top it all off, I've been trying to break land speed records getting home the past couple of nights to spend as much time as possible with Shane. It hasn't happened...yet.
He's home! Yesterday was my first ride on a non-human-powered vehicle for about a week and a half. With almost no vegetables, and no fruit beyond what I've been preserving, we had to go to the store. We started up the truck and...it was acting just as weird as it had been the last time I drove it. So we took the motorcycle instead. We didn't get much, since aside from fresh fruits and veggies we didn't need all that much, so it easily fit in a backpack.
I haven't told Shane about the horrible malaise that attacked me last time he was gone. (I don't want him to worry, and that would just make it all more difficult for him.) I'm still trying to adjust to this schedule, but it's hard. When I'm home by myself I just don't feel like doing much. I made no-knead bread because it took the least amount of effort. I didn't weed (awful!) so the garden is once again completely overgrown. (I still got twelve large pea pods out of it yesterday, though!) The only thing I actually cooked for myself were grilled cheese sandwiches, which I ate for a whole week. We didn't have any sandwich meat (and I was too lazy/busy to go to HGMarket when it was open) so I didn't even have anything to dress it up with.
Having an actual dinner last night was fantastic. Not that I don't love grilled cheese (obviously) but it just doesn't seem like a complete meal. Shane cooked, and we planned out what we want to have for the rest of the week. Good and yummy things, with lots of vegetables!
The only good thing I can say is that I discovered the joys of bok choy, and my favorite way to eat it. It's great in stir-fry, of course, but it can stand on its own as well and it's very simple to cook up. I simply chop it into bite-sized pieces and finely chop some garlic. Heat up the cast iron skillet and add a little bit of sesame oil. Saute the garlic and bok choy for just a couple of minutes, until the leafy parts look a bit wilted, adding some soy sauce about halfway through. (Just a dash for flavor, you don't want it to dominate the delicate bok choy.) The whole thing takes about five minutes and it won't heat up your kitchen unbearably. I imagine that if you were planning to grill, you could also cook it on a grill in a cast iron skillet. Sliced radishes are also a great addition, if you happen to have some.
I'm trying to figure out things that I want to cook for just myself when Shane's gone, so that I don't fall into a morass of grilled cheese sandwiches again and I've got a few ideas. The biggest problem, really, is finding the motivation and I think that will be better when I have more than two hours at home in which I'm not sleeping.
The plus side to Shane being gone so much is that it's more difficult to take each other for granted. I've been trying to do something special for him every time he gets home. One week it was to make a special dinner and have it waiting for him. One week it was, um, lingerie. :) This time, since I was at rehearsal when he got home, I left him a scavenger hunt. It ended up at the freezer, where I had a pint of Hot Licks ice cream waiting for him. Originally I was just going to leave a note on the door telling him about the ice cream, but I realized that was sort of sad. So I sent him all over the apartment with little notes telling him, "Nope, still not here! Why don't you check...." and a couple of bad puns thrown in for good measure. I'm trying not to repeat myself, at least not for a while, so if anyone has any other ideas about what to do, tell me! The more creative, the better.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Work/Life balance...in customer service?

When I tell someone, "The library is closing," what I really mean is "I will do just about anything short of setting your hair on fire to get you out of here faster."

Well, maybe not. But it certainly means, "I have a life outside of work that I'm desperate to get to, and you're the last thing possibly standing in my way." It just needs to be said politely, and with a smile.
Only a few of my jobs have actually been "customer service" type jobs, and this is by far the longest running. And you know what? I hate it. It's not even rude customers (or in this case, "patrons") who bother me so much. Thankfully, those seem to be few and far between and I've managed them so well that when they've left, through the window in her office my boss has mouthed, "Good job!" and given me a thumbs-up. They never realize that her door is open, they're standing two feet from it, and she can hear exactly how rude they're being.
What I hate the most about customer service jobs is the fact that I have to be at the whim of other people, constantly. I was talking to a friend the other night about wishing I could find a job that would fit itself around my life, rather than having to fit my life around my job. "That's the dream, anyway," I concluded and she laughed a little bit. "Yeah, that would be nice."
I'm never going to find that in a customer service job. I can't work from home, and I have to be on a set schedule, because we have to be there just in case someone decides to come in that day. And my boss, who is wonderful in many ways, panics at the idea that we might not be available to serve everyone who might possibly need us, at any moment. I don't know what sort of library-related emergencies she thinks people will have--perhaps someone pounding on the doors in the middle of the night screaming their need for the "Journal of Experimental Brain Research". (Yes, it's a real journal and yes, it makes me giggle to myself every time I see it.) Despite drastically falling numbers of people who come into the library, thanks to the world wide web and many of the resources we have available there, it took me and my coworker two years to convince her that we didn't need to be open on Sundays when school is not in session. Having to work a few Sundays last summer, and having not a single person come in, sucked.
So what's a person to do? Is it possible to find a bit of work/life balance within a customer service job? Or do I just have to get a different job altogether to try to find that? It's something I've been asking myself a lot lately. I've known for a long while that I didn't want to make working in the library my career (I know people who've worked there for 30 years, and the thought makes me cringe inside) but I'm not sure what I want to replace it with. In fact, I'm not sure I want "a career" at all. To say you have a career implies a love of what you do, yes, but also that you're totally content to be working steadily along some path and toward some ambition. I'm not sure I'm that kind of person. I don't seem to have an ambition, beyond saving enough money that I can live comfortably without needing to work anymore. I think that, like the guy in the movie "Office Space", I might not ever be totally happy in my job. Most people aren't, are they? Even among people who are happy in their profession, they tend to have some sort of "dream" job they'd give up their current money and power to get if it wasn't for...whatever circumstance they feel is holding them back.
I'm sure there's a lesson in there about going for your dreams no matter what, but I'm not going to touch it. It's already been said way too many times.
Of course, there are always nagging doubts. If I get another job, there's no guarantee that I'd find something that would suit me better. Might as well stay where I am, bored but comfortable, right? I'm trying to push those doubts away, to figure out what I want. I have to work, there's no question of that. At least for now. I wrote up a list for Shane of the pros and cons if I got a part-time job. (I had a specific one in mind.) The list of cons was way shorter than the list of pros, but it had what felt to me like the biggest obstacle. The loss of money. When I calculated it all out, it would have meant a loss of almost half my take-home pay, and probably a loss of benefits too. So I didn't apply for it. It's a mercenary decision, but I don't feel bad about it simply because we are young, we're recovering from one partner's joblessness, and we have goals that we're working toward. I decided that our mutual goals, and our long-term happiness, are more important to me than my immediate happiness, at least where work is concerned. If I was unhappy in any other part of my life, making my work life happier might shoot up in my list of priorities. As it is, every other part of my life rocks. Which sort of works to make the contrast between being unhappy at work and being happy everywhere else greater, and thus I'm even less content at work. Awesome, right?
I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would say, "Screw the money, do what makes you happy!" And a lot of people will tell you, from the comfort of the homes they own, surrounded by the cars and all the other things that money can buy, that money can't buy happiness, and dreams are worth so much more, etc., etc. Well, I already said that I don't seem to have a real dream in terms of a "career" but I do have dreams, modest dreams, about what kind of life I'd like to have. The life that Shane and I want to live together. Some of those dreams (like buying or building a house) involve money. So for now, I've moved "part-time work" into the "someday" file in my head. Now I just need to remember to take that file out and evaluate it once every year or two.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Biking, whether I want to or not

Before Shane left for this work shift I filled up the gas tank of the truck. Well, both tanks. And I thought to myself, I wonder if we can make it to September on less than one of these tanks? I figured it was possible, and vowed to myself that I would start exclusively biking everywhere while Shane is gone. After all, I'll miss the biking once it snows, and it's good for me.
I forgot about one crucial thing, though: the opera and accompanying rehearsals. Oh. Right. The rehearsals, as originally given out to us, were all supposed to be across town (about half an hour by bike) in an area that I wouldn't really feel safe biking. Additionally, while I can bike with my violin, and rather easily since I have backpack straps on the case, I don't like to for one simple reason. This violin was my great-grandfather's. It's precious to me. Even with a hard case, and a padded case over that, I always worry about what would happen to it if I got hit by a car. (Not to mention that I wouldn't be able to play anyway if I was in the hospital, or broke my arm or something.) Even if I just crashed myself, would I damage it? If my violin was damaged beyond repair, I would be devastated for so many reasons. Not only would it be hideously expensive to buy a new one, but family heirlooms like this are functionally irreplaceable. So I hesitate to bike very far with my violin.
I drove to the first rehearsal. And all the way there, the truck protested. It was making a lurching, jerking motion that scared me, and stalled at pretty much every stop. Since it had been driving fine just four days earlier, I wasn't sure what could have gone wrong while it was just sitting in the driveway. And obviously, this wasn't a good thing. I made it to rehearsal, but I didn't want to drive the truck until I could talk over with Shane what had to be done. (When I talked to him later, he told me to just not drive it and he'd look at it when he comes home.) So during the rehearsal's break I talked to a friend who lives not too far away and asked if I could bum a ride from her, explaining what was going on. She said yes, so that's how I got to Friday's rehearsal. However, we're not just doing an opera. We're doing a concert first (on Thursday this week, if anyone wants to come!) and my friend is only in the concert, not the opera. So there was still the question of how to get to the opera-only rehearsals.
Thankfully, the location was switched. The acoustics in the original practice site were pretty awful, so we were moved to a church not too far from my house. A distance I feel confident biking to and from, even with my violin. For the concert, I can get a ride with my friend. As for the opera and its rehearsals next week, I'll probably end up biking. If not, I'll find a ride with another friend who would most likely be willing to give me a lift.
By the way, "La Boheme" makes Mahler's Symphony #4 seem easy. Mahler didn't write easy pieces. I came home from the first concert rehearsal thinking, "I can do this! I'm awesome!" I came home from the first opera rehearsal thinking, "I suck. What made me think I could ever do this?!" It's getting better, but I'm looking forward to the time I have off for Independence Day so that I can practice!
Since I started running with her again last week, I've been trying to take the dog for a run nearly every day. We missed yesterday, which is funny since I got to come home from work early. (I'm staying longer today and Friday, being the only one in town to keep the office open.) But you'd think that with all this exercise I'd be eating more. Nope. In fact, I realized that I eat less when Shane's gone than I do when he's here. It just seems like so much work to cook for myself. The other day, other than fruit, the only things I ate were a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches. Yes, I made scones the other day. But other than that...? It just seems like so much work, and so many dirty dishes (according to the landlord our new dishwasher is on order, hurrah!), just for me. And times when I might stay up for a few minutes chatting with Shane and nibbling on something, I don't. Even when I'm actually hungry in the evenings, I'll think, "Nah, I'll just eat tomorrow." Yes, I realize that lack of appetite like this can be a sign of depression, and while I don't feel as happy when Shane's gone I don't think that's it. I'm just being too lazy with myself and I need to figure out how to start cooking for one. So last night, I actually did. I made a pizza. It was pretty simple to reduce the amount of dough, which usually makes two pizzas, to just one. And I loaded it up with veggies, since I've been eating lots of fruit but not so many vegetables.
Any other ideas on good, summery things to cook for just myself? I love sandwiches, but even I probably have a limit to how many I can eat in a week without getting sick of them.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A little bit here, a little bit there

This weekend ended up being a food preservation weekend. I decided to try a couple of things I've never done before, and I'm so glad I did.
For the last couple of weekends I've collected cucumbers from the farmer's market. I'm not a huge fan of fresh cucumbers (except with hummus, but I didn't feel like making hummus) but I am a fan of pickles. I've never made them before but I found an easy recipe in the book "Put 'Em Up!" and tried it. It worked! At least, I think it did. I haven't tried them yet. Vinton put a lot of different pickle recipes in her book, for many different vegetables (including carrots and beans) but I figured I'd start with the classic cucumber pickle. I don't have a crock, however, or anything that would work as one. I know you can use a plate in a glass bowl, but we have the problem of round bowls and square plates. Luckily, the recipe I used was meant to be water-bath canned rather than crocked. Some people like pickled foods for the beneficial probiotic bacteria that can be found in fermented foods, but the canning process kills any bacteria (that's what it's meant to do, after all) so these pickles won't have that. I'm just going for yumminess.
The canning process tenderizes the pickles. I'm going to wait about a month before I bust a jar open to taste them, just to be sure the flavors mix properly.
I got seven jars from about 20 pickles, two jars of which are quite large, and I thought that at the rate we eat pickles it would probably be enough. But now I'm so excited that I just want to make more. So, I think I will. At the very worst, I can give some away as Christmas presents. Or give some to any friends who get pregnant.
In addition to getting the cucumbers from the farmer's market, I also bought the dill for the pickles there. I used a whole bunch, so these might be very dilly pickles! (I'm going to taste them before I give any away.)
I also canned some cherries, using a recipe from the same book. L and I both had some cherries that were about to go bad so I wanted to preserve them. After we biked to the farmer's market together, we biked back to my place to clear out my bag, then to her place for her cherries, then back home for me. (And then to the store for the pickling items I didn't have...lots of biking that day, since I also biked to the opera rehearsal.) The recipe I chose was "Classic Cherry Preserves", but what I ended up with was more like preserved cherries than cherry preserves. I think I just didn't boil it long enough because it never gelled. Oh well. They're still going to be yummy and useful for lots of stuff.
I'm imagining warm winter tarts or crumbles or crisps. Mmmm.... The amount of cherries I had made four jars plus a little bit. Two jars will go to L and two to me, which is not nearly enough so I need to buy more cherries this week.
I tasted the little bit that was leftover and, even after I realized I wanted to bake them in something, it was hard to stop eating them! They're quite tasty. But I finally stopped munching them and had just enough leftover to justify using them (and their juice) in my scones recipe. (Since there was so much liquid from the cherries, I just omitted some of the milk.) If you want to know how they tasted, well, I had two scones for breakfast. :)
There are not many sounds more pleasing than the "pop" of a canning lid as it seals. What should I attempt to can and preserve next?
One final note on canning: my mom always said to put the jars upside down while you're waiting for them to seal, but from what I've read on the internet there are people who are absolutely horrified by that practice. I have no idea why, or why it's considered unsafe (my mom, and probably yours too, if not your grandmothers, canned things that way for years and everyone lived...) but I didn't do that with these jars. I just left them right side up, listened for that pleasant "pop", and then checked the seal by pressing down on the center of the lid. If there's no give, it's properly sealed. A basic internet search will tell you what to do to can safely, how to look for signs of spoilage (like bulging lids) and things of that sort. Any canning book worth buying, like the one I have, will also have that basic information. "Put 'Em Up!" also has a section on signs that look bad, but really aren't.
Never skimp on the processing time your canning book tells you (both of these needed ten minutes in the boiling water bath, but others need 15 or more) and you should be ok. Honestly, if I can preserve food this way I'm sure you can too. There are so many people out there who seem to think that home-canned food will lead to death and that's rubbish. Follow a recipe, check occasionally for signs of spoilage, don't eat anything that seems suspect (follow your instincts) and you'll be just fine.
I really, really should get an actual set of canning tools. Like a jar lifter. That would make my life so much easier, rather than using regular (slippery) tongs and Shane's long beer-brewing spoon to carefully lift things out of the water. Anyone have some they want to loan me?